This is the Hand That Built

This is the hand that raised the kids

                        That played in the kitchen

                                    That had the pot

                                                That cooked the corn

                                                            That sold in the market

                                                                        That fed the family

                                                                                    That lived in the house

                                                                                                That Maria built.

Look at a house from a poor woman’s point of view.  It is more than a shelter for sleeping and eating; it is also a woman’s primary workspace.  Whether this work is paid or not may change over a lifetime.  When children are young, a woman may work mainly as an unpaid householder.  But a shelter can also be a place where she earns her living.  If she is disabled, she can do home-based jobs such as sewing.   Even if she is a peddler traveling around the city, she must prepare the goods at home.  An older woman sets up a small store right at the front door.   She cures the sick and cares for children at home.  The list of activities seems endless.  Oh, there is one thing she is not likely to do at home: retire.

Woman potter
Woman potter

The error of many governments’ discussions about the home is to assume that men and women use it in the same way.  Participants at UN meetings about economic development, including urban planners, academicians and scientists, often talk about a home from a male perspective–as a place that you leave when you go to work.  It is as if a home were a “private” space without connection to the “public” arena of commerce and politics.   From a working woman’s point of view, this “private” space cannot be separated from outside life.

Reproduction, production and consumption are the three pillars of a household economy.  A woman is the fourth pillar and she must keep the others balanced or the whole family suffers. If her job requires long distance travel and there is no day-care facility at work, she must find alternative care for the children.  In many families this means that daughters will drop out of school to help the family survive.  Women must also consider their responsibilities as consumers of goods and services.  A home’s location near a good school, a water pump, quality public services, and stores is as important for family welfare as low-cost housing.

These are some critical gender and shelter issues that need to be remembered in the final deliberations of defining the post-2015 agenda.  They are conditions many of us know exist, but they are not always reflected in the outcome of a UN consultation.  If anything, policy-makers are prone to apply a double standard to women and shelter issues.  They do not mind bringing women into the picture when referring to personal security or family life.  They are less inclined to listen when women declare that housing is not a personal matter, but a political one.  Women want and should have more decision-making power about house rights—including issues related to land and other assets.

At stake are women’s rights to speak out against economic and social policies that create conflicts between women’s multiple roles.  For example, to increase women’s economic participation, policies may favor foreign investments in export-oriented trade zones that attract a female work force.  But these jobs are often incompatible with women’s duties at home. There are few support services for child-care in these industrial parks even if management openly approves of working mothers.

Another example is how poverty affects family planning.  Poor women may have access to family planning services, but even quality services do not guarantee women “reproductive choice.”  Women and health activists point out that in some Latin American countries, women appear to have access to a variety of family planning methods, but they still undergo mass sterilization because of poverty.  They simply cannot afford to give up workdays or extra money for visits to health clinics.  True freedom of choice about family planning is possible only when there are economic opportunities as well.  But these have declined for women due to the global economic crisis and higher fees for public services.

What will count in the future?  UN negotiations on the so-called Post-2015 development agenda (the UN development targets from 2015 to 2018) that marginalize women’s view about how work and family fits into economic development fail to uncover.  One important message from the International labor Organiation and the Beijing Platform for Action is that creating compatibility between work and family is crucial to attaining sustainable development. Let the women who speak from real life situations have an equal say in how family and work fits into the bigger pictures.