The feminine face of housing in Latin America -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The feminine face of housing in Latin America

“For me, to have a home of my own is the largest of dreams. But it is so difficult…
God willing, one day it will happen.” —María Elena, 45, resident of an informal settlement in Costa Rica

By Marta Elena Hernández Barrantes

From the time we were young girls playing “house,” Latin American women have considered a domestic space a fundamental part of our lives. Culturally, we are taught that we are of the home, even when we do not own the house itself. Despite our increased presence and responsibility in many public arenas, the cultural process of socialization continues to render women primarily accountable to the home and the community.

Yet access to adequate housing[i] is a difficult challenge for a large percentage of the approximately 230 million people who suffer from poverty in Latin America, particularly for women. In every country in Latin America, more women suffer from poverty than men—an average of 1.15 times more. The situation is further aggravated by the rise in women-headed households, which now account for approximately 32 percent of all families in the region[ii].

This unpaid responsibility, combined with caring for parents and other dependents, the insecurity of land tenure, limited access to basic services, precarious housing conditions and the inability to access proper health care and quality education for themselves or their children are just some of the factors that contribute to the cycle of poverty among Latin American women.

Despite significant advances in national legislation across the region, the historic exclusion of women as legitimate recipients of basic human rights prevails.

The poverty gap for gender requires policies that promote the recognition of existing rights to adequate housing. This includes “a protected space, private and safe, where one can feel a sense of belonging and connection to their roots; a place where they can enjoy their other rights and carry out productive and reproductive activities.”[iii]

Habitat for Humanity’s goal, therefore, should mirror that of the 1996 Declaration of Istanbul, which calls for countries to “provide legal security of tenure and of equal access to land for all people, including women, and to undertake reform that ensures that women have full and equal access to economic resources, including the right to inheritance and property.” The Declaration of Istanbul, drafted and announced in Istanbul, Turkey, in June 1996, was part of the UN-Habitat conference on Human Settlements, also known as Habitat III.

The successful strategies for policies and programs to meet these goals require both a conceptual and a methodological approach. These include programs that:

  • Actively involve women in the decision-making process.
  • Implement positive or affirmative action as instruments of leveling inequalities and assuring equal opportunities for women and men.
  • Recognize the existence of diverse types of families, such as women-headed households, single-person homes and other combinations of family arrangements that in turn generate diverse housing needs.
  • Prioritize families with a high number of economic dependents, due to the high vulnerability this means for any family.
  • Consider the different roles of women and men in home upkeep, not only in economic terms, but also emotional, psychological and the establishment of community support and social networks.
  • Guarantee access to diverse housing finance options for women, including subsidies and credit.
  • Improve the legal protection of land tenure and housing for women.

In the area of Latin America and the Caribbean, we have several programs that work toward these goals. At Habitat for Humanity Bolivia, for example, an advocacy-focused project was implemented in two communities to help women recognize and exercise their rights to access adequate living conditions.

In Mexico, the “Women Move the World” project provided 300 low-income women heads of household with healthy housing solutions to meet their individual needs. The project also helped strengthen the women’s leadership skills and capacity to work together on construction projects and community organization.

As with the rest of the developing world, many Latin American and Caribbean countries still have many hurdles to overcome in ensuring women have the same basic rights as men, including access to safe and decent shelter. But the more we continue to focus our programming on education, advocacy and involving women in decision-making, the more we help women realize and even surpass the common girlhood dream of owning and managing a home.

Marta Hernandez is a country coordinator in Habitat for Humanity International’s Latin America and the Caribbean area office. She has worked with Habitat for six years and has a postgraduate degree in gender-related project management, specializing in development projects with a gender perspective. She has also completed postgraduate coursework in women and housing with UNIFEM (the United Nations Development Fund for Women) and Central American Superior University Council.


[i] United Nations’ Economic and Social Council’s Human Rights Commission: “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Women and Adequate Housing.” March 23, 2003. Paragraph 4. Definition of adequate housing: “The right of every woman, man, youth and child to gain and sustain a secure home and community in which to live in peace and dignity.”

[ii] Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL): 2009 Report on the Social Panorama of Latin America.

[iii] Secretary General , Habitat International Coalition: Summary of International Seminar. “Women and the Right to Housing: Building Habitat for Human Dignity.” Barcelona, Spain. November 2008.