In this issue of Habitat Debate focusing on women in cities,
it is a great honour for us to reproduce an excerpt of the acceptance
speech of the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai. For many years
a strong supporter of UN-HABITAT and UNEP, she is the first African woman
to be awarded the peace prize since it was created in 1901.
she has taken has been marked by trials and triumphs over long years
of struggle very often with UN support. She has been brave, outspoken,
persistent and consistent in the pursuit of a holistic approach to achieve
This recognition by the Nobel Committee is an important endorsement
of the role women have played, and will continue to play, to make the
world a more peaceful place. It is also a powerful recognition of the
unheard voices of African women in their daily battle for dignity and
In coming weeks and months, this battle, so similar to the daily grind
confronting poverty-stricken women in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean,
is being taken to the highest levels of the international policy agenda.
At the beginning of March in New York, the UN Commission on the Status
of Women (CSW) conducts its 10-year review and appraisal of the Beijing
Declaration and Platform for Action (BpfA). It also commemorates the
30th anniversary of the First UN World Conference on Women in Mexico
At this pivotal meeting, the discussions will not only cover poverty,
gender equality and women empowerment, but will look closely at linking
the BPfA, the Millennium Development Goals and the Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This entails
the problems women face everywhere – in their homes and on the
streets of towns and cities around the world: that of under-representation
in national and local government, a constant fear of crime and physical
attack, health, poor sanitation conditions, employment, a lack of statistics
and indicators, and the girl-child.
In too many countries, women still remain second-class citizens, barred
from taking employment of their choice, forced to accept lower salaries
than men for the same work, forced to trudge many miles to fetch water,
denied access to land or security of tenure, denied inheritance rights,
forced into marriage at a young age.
Sometimes even the right to vote is denied. And many young women and
girls are at risk to international prostitution and sexual slavery.
In poor families, the girls usually lose out in favour of boys when
deciding whether a brother or sister should go to school. From the practice
of female circumcision to the right to a seat on a bus if you’re
pregnant, the list goes on, the problems often compounded by deeply
ingrained traditions and culture.
We cannot divorce these problems, human rights and violence against
women from human settlements. Our towns and cities are growing as never
before in history and sustainable urbanisation is indeed one of the
most pressing challenges facing the global community in the 21st century.
In 1950, one-third of the world’s people lived in cities. Just
50 years later, this proportion has risen to one-half and will continue
to grow to two-thirds, or 6 billion people, by 2050. Cities are the
hub of national production and consumption – economic and social
processes that generate wealth and opportunity. But they also create
disease, crime, pollution and poverty. This is where UN-HABITAT is mandated
to make a difference. If we lose the battle against the urbanisation
of poverty, we risk losing the development battle at every level. And
first among the losers will be women and girls.
In one recent example of how we are taking this battle forward, the
South African Government, the African Union and UN-HABITAT sponsored
a meeting in February with ministers and senior officials from more
than 40 African countries at the First African Ministerial Conference
on Housing and Urban Development (AMCHUD). For five days, the conference
examined ways of tackling growing urbanization in a continent, where
south of the Sahara, over 70 percent of urban dwellers live in slums.
An enhanced framework of action to begin reversing this situation was
agreed upon. African Ministers recognised that gender equality and women’s
empowerment should be an integral part of urban poverty reduction policies
and programmes. They further recommended that human settlements and
the plight of the urban poor, particularly the homeless and slum dwellers,
be priority areas for women’s concern in the coming decade.
Several speakers urged governments and the international community
to try going beyond Target 11 of MDG No. 7 - to improve the lives of
at least 100 million slum dwellers by the year 2020, and try to help
still more people. This ground-breaking conference also agreed on a
range of women’s concerns in every sphere of activity. And they
agreed to review progress every two years.
Be it African governments or women of the world, we have to speak
with one voice at forthcoming international gatherings in New York.
These include the Summit of the UN General Assembly to review UN Millennium
As Professor Wangari so eloquently states, we hope that all of this
will encourage women and girls to raise their voices and obtain more
space in societies and in cities.
Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka