Poor urban women give high priority to affordable access to well-located serviced plots and houses. Women’s locational preferences, motives for investing in housing and priorities for services may differ from men’s. Evidence is mounting that registration of property rights has positive effects for poor people in general and women in particular, especially where households previously had little security. These benefits are manifest in increased investment in housing, a reduced need for activities to protect insecure tenure rights, empowerment of women within their households and benefits to families (including increased investment in human capital, especially of children). This paper makes the case that gender responsive land, housing and urban development policies and practices that address the needs of low income urban residents are as important as individual property rights. Legal tenure for example does not necessarily provide low income residents with access to formal credit for investment in either housing or economic activities because financial institutions are often unwilling to lend to the poor, and low income households are often unwilling to risk their main asset.
Evidence on the cost effectiveness, sustainability and longer term impact of land and housing policies and legal reforms is limited and the few quantitative evaluations (and even fewer gendered evaluations) are context or project specific and so their lessons only have limited transferability. In practice, many interventions are multi-sectoral (such as upgrading of informal settlements) and legal/policy changes are often accompanied by other initiatives (e.g. microfinance, entrepreneurial support, service improvements), so attributing outcomes and impacts to registration and titling is difficult.
Many countries have now improved the legal framework for land administration and personal law to protect women’s rights, but it is rare for all the ingredients of a progressive legal framework to be in place and often inconsistencies between sources of law and individual pieces of legislation remain. In addition, there are gaps between legal provisions and social norms and practices. Whether or not policies and laws address existing unhealthy and insecure living conditions and redress gender inequality depends on political, social and familial relations and whether poor women and men have a voice in decision making. In practice, many recent land registration and housing programmes, as well as wider land and planning policies, are not gender sensitive. Even when gender considerations are integrated into the design, they have not always been implemented in practice.
Experience shows that the legal and policy frameworks for land management and property rights need to explicitly recognise women’s rights, requiring gender-specific measures. However, reforms to property and family law are insufficient – they interact with policies and practices related to land administration, planning for increased housing supply and improvements to informal settlements. In order to benefit poor women, laws, governance and administrative arrangements that improve access to affordable, well-located serviced plots and houses for poor residents in general are required. But unless gender is mainstreamed into their design and implementation, they will not meet women’s needs. Although many of the changes appear to be legal and technical, access to and control over land and property is related to socio-economic characteristics and governed by power relations at the family, community, city and country levels. Any changes, including those that seek to increase gender equality, challenge vested interests. Their effects therefore depend on the outcomes of political processes and power struggles.