May 11, 2009
When we consider adequate housing as a basic, human right, we must also consider the issue in relation to gender equality. Many women still find themselves excluded from certain aspects of housing, and approximately one-third of women in the world are living in inadequate housing conditions.
The struggles of women and the responsibilities involved in being a female head-of-household are elements that point out the vulnerability of these families in their right to adequate housing. Many of these women-headed households represent incomplete nuclear families, and are often characterized by a higher level of poverty and a lesser level of education.
According to 2006 CASEN surveys, there are 1,866,673 women-headed households in Chile. In other words, 35 percent of Chilean households—whether of single mothers, married women, widows, co-habituating couples or single women—all share the common characteristic that the main source of income for the family is provided by a woman. This woman head-of-household actively participates in the development of the family through activities in her neighborhood, community and elsewhere.
There are many factors which affect women’s access to housing, such as more limited access to the formal labor market, or being paid less than their male counterparts for the same type of work.
The precarious and crowded housing situation often contributes to higher levels of domestic violence and mental health issues—primarily affecting women and children, who spend significantly more time within the home.
Nevertheless, women heads-of-household bear the weight of their situation, and are often the ones who create new vehicles and networks through which to strengthen their family’s social capital, and participate with other community actors to create new opportunities.
Accessing or improving housing is an ambition shared by the entire household. However, in most cases, it is one overwhelmingly led by women. Women assume a central role in attaining their right to housing and participate more frequently in the public environment of their neighborhood. The community where a woman lives is a direct demonstration of her roles, interests, abilities and struggles.
As an example, the women of the project “Building Homes Without Borders”, and female leaders of housing committees for government subsidies, are more than just hard-working mothers. They are also the leading players in their family’s development, participating actively in community and nation-wide networks which join volunteers, technical assistance organizations, national government and private businesses. Of the 2,700 participating families in 2007 and 2008, 70 percent—in other words, 1,892 families—represents women-headed households.
“We understand that having a house is not a privilege, but a right. But this house also needs to be dignified, to meet our needs and the needs of our families. This is what our committee recognizes, and what we propose to achieve. With effort and hard work we will achieve it, the only thing that we can truly say with pride is…mission completed.”
“Looking Towards the Future” housing committee
Pudahuel Community – Santiago de Chile, Metropolitana region
Their active participation and leadership has not only created access to adequate housing. Today, positive changes are becoming evident, such as the reduction of child illnesses, improvement in family relations, a new generation of skills and an increased willingness to help others.
Watch our tribute to all mothers everywhere: Click here 
By Sonia Cárdenas, Social Mobilization for Housing Coordinator, Habitat for Humanity Chile.
Photos courtesy of Habitat for Humanity Chile.