As part of the global actions around the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25), Cities Alliance is raising awareness on how access to secure housing and gender-responsive services are key determining factors of women's safety and wellbeing. By Felicity Kitchin, Urban Development Consultant and Leonie Grob, Cities Alliance. The need for housing is often the most common and urgent one for survivors of domestic violence. Yet, is frequently also the most unmet. Women who are abused in their homes often have no choice but to leave, entering into homelessness due to a lack of safe housing opportunities. At the same time, women who lack access to safe housing and land are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault and violence. Globally, approximately 30 to 35 per cent of women and girls aged older than 15 have been suffering gender-based violence, including intimate partner violence or domestic violence1. To escape from their perpetrator, women and their children often have no other option but to flee their homes, resulting in about 50 to 60 per cent of homeless women worldwide due to domestic violence2. Although the situation of women exposed to domestic violence and sexual abuse is very individual, the lack of access to safe housing worsens the situation for them all. This becomes even more apparent in the context of rapid urbanization and informal city growth, where city governments struggle with providing services. While informal settlements offer some freedoms and protections for women, these are usually outweighed by the risks and challenges that come with informal living3. And yet, often informal living and housing represent the only opportunity for women to escape from abuse and violence. Compared to women with access to safe housing, women who live in informal settings face a lack of economic resources or severe health problems due to poor nutrition and limited access to basic services, resulting in higher rates of diseases and mortality. Moreover, the lack of privacy and poor environmental conditions cause or fuel intra-household tension – including domestic violence. Female property owners and tenure holders are considerably less likely to experience domestic violence and are more capable of ending violent relationships. They enjoy higher status in the community, enhanced legal rights, greater economic independence, and bargaining power4,5. Yet, in 2019 women still constituted less than 15 per cent of global landowners6, and in urban areas, over 6 per cent more women than men are facing difficulties to secure tenure7. Even if they succeed in finding housing and do not need to settle in informal neighbourhoods, gender-based violence survivors are more likely to face eviction8, which they are often unable to fight due to language barriers, societal status or unfamiliarity with prevailing legal and social security systems. The need for data, emergency shelter and long-term solutions The interactions and causalities between women’s exposure to violence and lack of access to safe and affordable housing need to be analyzed to address safety and housing needs. Therefore, housing policies and programmes need to be grounded in intersectional gender-based analysis.
Various civil society and private initiatives take on this task. For instance, the Gender Violence Observatories9 established in many cities in Latin America, aim at closing the existing data gap on gender-based violence, including violence towards homeless women. By collecting quantitative and qualitative data from women’s organisations, state prosecutors, or the media, these observatories produce diagnostic analyses to advocate for improvements in public policies and practices and monitor these. They count as effective tools to increase the visibility of gender-based violence and women’s homelessness and to improve government accountability of the matter. Moreover, if carefully engaged, victimised, homeless women provide an important data source for assessing their vulnerabilities. Victims of gender-based violence also require access to housing services that respond to their immediate needs and are tailored to their vulnerabilities. Participatory approaches in shelters can ensure that women receive the services that they require, for instance, in terms of health, childcare, and mental support.
Such co-designing methods are implemented in the Casas Acogidas10 located in the Ecuadorian cities of Sucumbia, Quito, Orellana, Guayaquil and Cuenca. The women living in the shelters of this network shape their co-living in the shelter by jointly deciding on the norms, rules and needed services. Based on an integrated analysis of vulnerabilities, they co-design and determine the measures that enable them to leave the vicious cycle of violence and homelessness. By involving women in designing supportive interventions and measures in shelters, the women are empowered to fight violence and the accompanying consequences, resulting in more effective ways of leaving homelessness.
Women's access and right to long-term housing must be secured, specifically in the context of rising property prices in rapidly growing urban areas. Therefore, promoting the economic empowerment of homeless women and enabling them, for instance, to pass screening requirements for owning and renting housing are needed.
Coordinated, cross-sectoral approaches of women’s shelters, such as those applied by Indian NGO Saathi11 or the Oshawa Women’s Health Centre12 are crucial to promoting women’s transitions to permanent, affordable housing. Case managers provide, for instance, legal, educational, financial, housing and employment support, thereby addressing women’s needs in an integrated manner, and reducing their risk of falling through gaps in policy and housing provision.
The provision of subsidized housing and property that account for their needs, for instance in terms of size and safety, is both a primary predictor of housing stability for homeless women, but also a preventive measure to secure housing rights for all women. Creating housing units and opportunities, for instance as done by the Chicago-based NGO Housing Opportunities for Women13 which annually provides more than 600 households with permanent homes, is crucial to guarantee women’s right to housing. Further, affordable rental schemes, subsidized by public and/or private actors, can support homeless women to secure long-term housing and tenure, also in the marginalized parts of urban areas14. Breaking the spiral of gender-based violence
Gender-based violence and women’s access to affordable and stable housing are inextricably linked. Although they manifest in different forms, dimensions, and scales, they are prevalent around the wor