WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Many of the poor residents of Recife, a city on Brazil’s Atlantic coast, lived in fear of being forced out of their homes in the city centre. But this changed for about 350 families earlier this month when the government gave them deeds to the land on which they had lived for decades.
Women’s groups had spent decades pressuring politicians to guarantee the safety of their homes until finally on March 12 the first deeds were granted. In all about 3,000 families in the informal settlement of Ponte de Maduro in Recife are in line to receive legal rights to their small plots.
Their victory was thanks to woman power, community organisers told a World Bank conference on land and poverty this week.
“Women are the key to achieving tenure security for all landless people in cities,” said Benjamin Bradlow, the deputy manager of the secretariat of Shack/Slum Dwellers International, a network of community organizations of the urban poor in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
“When organising communities, if you want to get housing issues at the forefront, you get women at the forefront and they will demand better housing for their families.”
Brazilians are guaranteed a right to housing by their constitution. But Brazilian slum dwellers, as in much of the developing world, risk being evicted from homes built on valuable land in the heart of the country’s growing cities. Communities that unite to assert their land rights can help tip the balance in their favour, and in doing so they can unleash the power of women, civil society activists say.
“We are guaranteeing their land security after three generations of struggle,” Patricia Chaves, the founder of an organization that helps women gain rights to land in Brazil, said.
Brazilian laws account for at least some of the needs of the urban poor, more than 11 million of whom live in slums. But there is a gap between the rules enshrined in formal laws and what actually happens on the ground, a problem that was discussed in detail at the World Bank conference.
“The general approach (of the government) is not only to upgrade the area with services, but to legalise the settlements,” said Edesio Fernandes, a Brazilian lawyer and urban planner.
Municipal governments can earmark land as “special zones of social interest” and protect them. In addition, when poor urban residents occupy an area for five years or more, the area is eligible for “regularisation,” a process that grants people some form of entitlement, either as owners or renters, to those small plots of land.
But many Brazilians have lived in slums for generations without getting any sort of title or official lease.
“Now, in the context of the World Cup and the Olympic Games, we see thousands of families being evicted,” said Fernandes. “These are families who would normally be entitled to a title, but have never demanded or been granted it. That’s why it’s so important for organised movements to demand the recognition of their land rights.”
Call in the women
Chaves has been working to strengthen women’s groups in Ponte de Maduro, which consists of four communities in Recife, since 2008. She has helped the women learn about their rights and the legal system, to pressure the government to grant deeds to the community and to ensure that women’s land is not taken by men during the titling process.
The government announced that it would “regularise” the area in 2010, but it took the women almost four more years of campaigning before the first titles were delivered this month. They attended meetings with local officials every one to two months, acting as “watch dogs” on the government’s progress. They weren’t always welcome. When a group of about 50 women first tried to attend a public meeting on local land issues, politicians tried to shut them out.
“We said `No, we are not going to leave the room. The constitution assures us the right to be here’,” Chaves said, explaining that the officials let them in after they threatened to call another 300 women.
Once women are organised, it not only raises the visibility of the issue, but it also means that the groups themselves can be included in plans and strategies which are being put in place by outside agencies to aid the communities.
“(It) is really a strategy to be able to have a visible entity that can be considered a development partner,” said Regina Pritchett, who works on housing issues for the Huairou Commission, an organisation that supports grassroots women’s groups worldwide.
She said connecting the women’s fight to international organisations, including the United Nations, strengthened their campaign and pushed government officials to act.
Women in Brazil were not allowed to own land until the 1980s. They still struggle to assert their rights in the face of men.
“Land is power,” said Katia Araujo, the director of the Huairou Commission’s resilience, land and housing campaign. It’s crucial for women, in particular, to learn about land policies and to work together to get access to land, she explained.
Chaves also helped the groups connect to the Huairou Commission. Out of more than 60 slums that the government has called special zones of social interest in Recife, only two are regularised.
“The struggle is not ending. We have a long way (to go) until each family has their titles,” said Chaves.