Tools for Change: Women’s Rights to Transform Economic Power

Tools for Change: Women’s Rights to Transform Economic Power

Last week, women’s rights advocates from around the world gathered in Istanbul at the 12th AWID (Association for Women in Development) International Forum. Held every 3-4 years, the International Forum is the largest event of its kind, providing women’s rights advocates an opportunity to connect and learn.

This year’s International Forum was significantly focused on its theme, Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and JusticeUN Women has described, “Women make up more than half the world’s population, but the majority of them live in poverty.  For their lives to change, they need access to and control of economic resources and political power.” Without access to economic resources, women cannot realize their basic rights.

However, protection of women’s equal rights to property, land, and housing is critical to a transformation of economic power. According to UNICEF, women perform 66% of the world’s work and produce 50% of its food, but earn only 10% of the world’s income and own 1% of property. Moreover, as explained by the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “Even when women do have legal property rights, their actual control of land may be tenuous, since men often mediate access.” Women’s inability to own, dispose of, and inherit property creates and perpetuates economic dependence on men.

This situation is particularly severe in the context of HIV/AIDS. Without access to property, land, and housing, women may be trapped in abusive relations where they are less empowered to protect themselves from HIV infection or seek treatment, or they may face increased vulnerability upon a husband’s death and forced to participate in widow inheritance (where the widow herself is “inherited”), polygyny, or high-risk work to survive. Impoverished women also have reduced capacity to cope with the disease.

Many international human rights instruments include protection for women’s property, land, and housing rights, yet many countries disregard these obligations. To demand government accountability, advocates must know and understand the rights espoused in these instruments.

To bridge this gap, the Open Society Foundations joined forces with the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), the Huairou Commission, and UNDP to develop a manual, Tools for Change: Applying UN Standards to Secure Women’s Housing, Land, and Property Rights in the Context of HIV/AIDS. This manual brings together international human rights instruments on women’s property and inheritance for easy reference and use by advocates and provides an analysis of key concepts, rights, and means of enforcement. The publication draws on the voices of grassroots women from Peru, the Philippines, and South Africa, working together to fight violations in their communities, to explain the various rights and their uses in practical terms. It additionally provides examples of the integration of human rights in advocacy and enforcement strategies within legal, political, and social spaces from around the world.

We hope this manual will help translate standards into action and rights into transformative tools for change.

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Dear Tamar,
Thank you for your post. You make a number of relevant and interesting points, including the increased vulnerability women face in the context of HIV when they are dispossessed of their property, the disregard for international instruments, and their lack of knowledge and understanding of these rights.

The increased number of infections in women can, amongst other things, be attributed to their unequal legal, economic and social status. In much of the developing world, women are routinely denied the right – either de jure or de facto – to own and inherit land or property. This excludes them from accessing resources that would help reduce vulnerability to HIV and improve their ability to mitigate its social and economic impacts. In response, the UNDP HIV/AIDS Group and the UNDP Nepal Country Office partnered with the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), the Forum for Women Law & Development, and UNDP’s Democratic Governance Group, to develop a training for judges on women’s inheritance and property rights in the context of HIV. This built upon work that the UNDP Regional Programme on HIV/AIDS in the Asia Pacific Region, undertook in 2008, in partnership with UNWomen and UNAIDS, to increase women’s access to land and property in the context of HIV.

The training helped increase judges’ sensitivity to women’s vulnerability and strengthened cross constituency dialogue on issues of women’s inheritance and property rights and HIV. Through peer-based approaches, case studies, problem solving exercises and other adult learning techniques, the judges had an opportunity to share insights with colleagues and deepen their understanding of international law as applied to domestic contexts. The training and subsequent consultation that were implemented in Nepal can and should be replicated in other countries in order to create awareness of protective laws and to influence policy on a greater scale than the district and local level. It would be worth exploring Tools for Change in the context of this programming.

Tamar, this a well written blog. I have read the tool and KELIN has contributed to it. It is a very useful and relevant tool for those working in the realm of property rights with and intersection to HIV issues. KELIN has engaged elders in the Nyanza region in Kenya to ensure that women exercise their right to inherit and own property. We have managed to resolve 74 cases out of 124 in a period of 36 months. 17 women have had semi-permanent houses constructed for them. We shall continue to make reference to the tool to improve and scale up our project. A link to the video on the project is available at

Thanks for this blog post. People may also be interested to know that UN-Women (i.e. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women) and and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) are convening an expert group meetingnext month on good practices and lessons learned in realizing women’srights to productive resources, with a focus on land. The meeting will be held at the OHCHR in Geneva, Switzerland, from 25 to 27 June 2012.

The meeting itself will focus on legislative and policy reforms and other initiatives to realize women’s rights to productiveresources, in particular land, as well as on going challenges and ways to address those challenges.

On the basis of the outcome of discussions and analysis, the expert group meeting will in part elaborate guidelines based on those good practices and lessons learned. The guidelines will be intended to serve as a tool for Member States and other stakeholders in their efforts to realize women’s land a rights. The guidelines will include good practice examples from countries.

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