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The World Urban Forum – Bringing Grassroots Women to the Urban Planning Table

FRIDAY FILE: The World Urban Forum 6 (WUF6) took place in Naples from 1-7 September 2012.

AWID spoke to Carmen Griffiths, Executive Director of the Construction Resource and Development Center (CRDC), and leader and organizer of GROOTS Jamaica[1]about grassroots women’s participation at this important global urban planning event.

By Susan Tolmay

AWID: What is the World Urban Forum?

Carmen Griffiths (CG): It is a Forum organised by UN HABITAT every two years – this is the sixth one - as space that brings together a range of actors involved in city planning - government ministers, local authorities, civil society, grassroots women's organizations, planners, engineers and architects, academics etc. - to discuss the challenges that cities face, looking at how cities are planned and how the interests of all the actors are taken into account in this planning.

We are living in a world that is becoming more and more urbanised, and urban spaces need to be planned, because if not carefully planned cities begin to fall apart at the cracks. So this space has been created that allows people to share ideas, to look at what has been done in other cities, and everybody benefits from this knowledge sharing.

AWID: What is meant by urbanisation?

CG: Urbanisation is a process, where more and more people are moving from rural areas into cities to make a better living and find employment. What you now find is that too many persons are living in cities, which puts pressure on infrastructure and services like housing, water and sanitation and this contributes to social problems. For example in Jamaica we have a population of 2.5 million and current estimates put the figure in the Kingston Metropolitan Area (KMA) at about half a million persons with some living in conditions that cannot be sustained, and with infrastructure that is unable to support the urban explosion.

Urbanisation is therefore exacerbating poverty – people come to the cities from rural areas and there’s no housing to accommodate them, so what they do is put up makeshift structures and shacks to live in and squatting then becomes a big problem. People move on to land and try to capture any space they can and start to build informal settlements, and before you know it you have a huge problem with all of these settlements that don’t have basic infrastructure. Governments have an important role to play in planning for this because people will move to cities if there is no work in the rural areas, because they have to live and support their families.

AWID: How does this affect communities in general and women in particular?

CG: Communities are affected because people live in sub-standard conditions with no infrastructure – no roads, water and sanitation - and with structures that should not be there. Jamaica is a country prone to natural disasters, especially hurricanes, and these structures cannot withstand such disasters. So these informal settlements are the most affected when we have a disaster because homes are destroyed. There are also health-associated problems linked to lack of water and sanitation not being available, like water-borne diseases, such as diarrhoea etc.

The impact of living in an urban environment that is overcrowded and unplanned is felt the greatest by women (and children) especially those heading single-family households. The data that we have seen has trended towards female headed-households being the significant proportion of those affected. CRDC did a study looking at female-headed households and at that time we noticed that 51-52% of all households were headed by women. When you consider that children can’t go to school, sometimes because of crime and violence or because they don’t have the right nutrition, add to this poor health and environmental conditions – then you begin to see the need for stakeholders to sit down and look at how cities should be planned to accommodate all the users. Everyone has a right to the city, but its use must be planned by all stakeholders, and those that are most vulnerable must be at the table.

AWID: How did women organise and participate at the WUF 6

CG: The strength of GROOTS and the Huairou Commission is the organisation of grassroots women. Women begin to organise long before the event, meeting and discussing their own issues at their local level and these discussions then form the basis for discussion at the forum. Prior to WUF the Huairou Commission and GROOTS organised a week long Grassroots Women Academy, which is a training and information sharing and exchanging space. The Academy is planned so that grassroots women from other countries meet with women in the WUF host city to discuss women’s issues that are relevant to the WUF discussion and to share what has worked for women in other parts of the world. A statement usually comes from the Grassroots Academy and the priorities from the statement are carried by different women as they attend the formal workshops. In addition grassroots women are usually speakers on various panels and in this way they not only share their practices, but they are able to place their “agenda on the agenda”. This year in Naples there were 56 grassroots women from 12 countries sharing their experiences of what has worked and what still needs to be accomplished in their countries around community driven urban development and governance.

While at the Academy the focus of the final statement, which incorporates what has been discussed, is to lobby for changes to policies at the global level, it is also the roadmap that women will use when they return to either begin or advance the work in their own cities.

Finally in terms of organising, the space provided for women brings partners to the Academy, Mayors, local government technocrats, head of major agencies, funders etc., so women can speak to them one-on-one. At this WUF, the Under Secretary General and Executive Director of UN HABITAT, Dr. Joan Clos, came into our meeting to hear what women were discussing – so grassroots women are engaging at the global, national, local and community levels, all to ensure that city planning involves grassroots women, who in some cases are the majority stakeholders in the cities.

It is important to note that previously grassroots women did not have an opportunity to move into formal spaces like this, but through GROOTS and the Huairou Commission these spaces are being created for grassroots women to voice their concerns and to share their stories with leaders about what is happening on the ground. In this global space we are able to speak and see for ourselves, and this empowers us to come back and engage with our constituencies about what was discussed, which then helps us to hold our local leaders accountable for what they have said in these global spaces.

AWID: What were some of the key issues discussed?

CG: Women are talking about crime and how crime is impacting women in an urban setting – we are looking at how policies and programmes developed within the city reflects the views and interests of women, for eg. UN HABITAT is now working on a programme called “I am a girl”, which is looking at what it means to be a young girl in a city.

The Safe Cities Programme looks at the correlation between violence and city planning, i.e. how do women feel within the city, do they feel safe? In Jamaica we developed a safety audit process to engage women and the local authorities – where we point out areas in the city that are not safe and where there is infrastructure that doesn’t suit women. For example, if you are challenged and you use a wheelchair then certain parts of the city do not take these needs into account, or there are parts of the city with insufficient street lighting, which affects women who walk home late at night.

Then there was the issue of economic empowerment, how do we provide employment for women within the cities; the whole issue of access to land and tenure was also high on the agenda. I spoke on urban resilience and what was needed to move forward so that there would be a common understanding from the grassroots level of what urban resilience mean.

AWID: The Advisory Group on Gender Issues (AGGI) was launched at the WUF6, what is the significance of this?

CG: AGGI is a new group that has been established, which has a good mix of governments, professional groups and grassroots organisations that will advise UN HABITAT on the gender programmes and policies that need to be pushed at that global level. This is the first time that there will be a group that will be advising the Executive Director about the gender path that UN HABITAT needs to take and the priorities that need to be flagged when it meets with governments. It also has implications for funding because sometime governments don’t listen when we speak to them at the local level because they look at things from a political point of view and not necessarily what is good for the community. So through this medium we are hoping that UN HABITAT will take these issues to whatever spaces they interact with government.

[1]A national network of grassroots women’s groups in rural and urban areas of Jamaica