Women today are being heavily short- changed when it comes to ownership of land. around the world. Helvi Sipila, a lawyer and secretary of the International Women's Year, told an international congress at Harvard Law School recently:
"Inequality and discrimination develop for many reasons. . . . Whatever the causes, however, discrimination is made most flagrant when it is sanctioned by land."
Her statement opens an extensive study on "Law and the Status of Women," which includes case histories from 15 countries. Very little room, however, is given to women's property rights -- a serious omission.
The Economic Commission of Africa estimates that up to 80 percent of all agricultural labor and most subsistence food production is done by women. Laws in most African countries, both traditional and modern, discriminate against a woman's right to own land. Often the women are excluded outright because land is registered in the name of a man as head of family.
The symposium, cosponsored by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., and the International Center for Land Policy Studies of London, brought together some 300 experts on land-use policies, urbanization, and real-estate taxation. It was opened by sage Lewis Mumford, whose "History of the City" and other publications are required reading at many universities.
Matthew Cullen from the Lincoln Institute, chairman of the conference, asserted:
"Since Habitat '76 [the United Nations Human Settlement Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia], there have been numerous conferences on housing and urban problems. There has never been, however, a major conference specifically devoted to land . . . even though land has become possibly the most critical element in housing prices and urban and rural policy in both developing and developed countries."
The increasing cost of land has affected the cost of living, including shelter, of almost every family, no matter where he lives -- New York to San Francisco, New Delhi to Nairobi, or Sao Paulo to Singapore.
To stimulate participation in the conference, a series of workshops provided the focus of the world meeting. Most of the panels dealt with specialized subjects, such as property taxation, agricultural land policies, title registrations, and the like. But there were many more general discussions on public land ownership, which included policies that affect the environment and thus the living quality of almost everyone's life.
The women's panel, for the first time in any world meeting, examined women's access to agricultural land, as well as urban property, from a global point of view.
Simply, women still face serious impediments all over the world where access to land is concerned.
As the women panelists pointed out -- Mangalam Srinivasan of India and Lisa Bennett, an international legal expert -- these impediments not only inflict hardship but they seriously set back the development effort and agricultural production in many developing countries.
Looking to the future, the panelists took up the suggestion of the chairman of the conference, Matthew Cullen, and Arlo Woolery, vice-president of the Lincoln Institute, and made some specific recommendations on future activities.
Under the "proposals for action," the panelists outlined a study to identify "laws which limit women's right to acquire, administer, and dispose of property, " and to initiate appropriate reforms.
Even in the United States today, many women find that, if divorced, they do not have a legal right to their home.Also, their credit may suddenly vanish because it depended on their ex-husband's name.
Yet female-headed households grew by 31 percent between 1970 and 1976. During those same years the percentage of female-owned homes dropped, asserts Tila Maris de Hancock of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"Women have not been considered in the urbanization process of the world," reported Nelly Garcia Bellizzia, an architectural engineer with a doctorate in urban planning from the Sorbonne in Paris.
The importance of women's contributions to community development was emphasized by Mary Racelis Hollnsteiner of the Philippines. As a sociologist, she urged professionals in land policy to become more cognizant of the needs and contributions of women everywhere.
A study of the actual legal situation of women's rights to land and property is said to be long overdue, a situation brought out forcefully by all the women panelists.
Later this year the Lincoln Institute will publish a report on the conference which is expected to become an important document on land policies around the world. Such policies, in a very real and direct way, influence not only the course of urban development -- how and where cities are built -- but what kind of housing each one of us can afford.