Arab women and affordable housing: falling short?


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In Saudi Arabia, not all women have the right to obtain houses or loans from the government. Under regulations issued by the Real Estate Development Fund, only men and women of Saudi citizenship are allowed to take a loan without the condition of owning the land. They should not own a house now nor have owned one in the past and they should not have previously taken a loan from the fund. But while the minimum age for receiving a loan for Saudi men is 21 if married and 24 if single, loans for Saudi women were available for those over 40 years who have never been married, women who have been divorced for at least two years, and widows who have not remarried.

Recently, lending conditions were reformed to benefit unmarried Saudi women who have not reached 40 years as well as married women who are the sole providers of their family. Exceptions are also made for male orphans under 21 years and female orphans over eighteen years and under 21 years who have not been married.

In the UAE, female nationals were not entitled to government housing benefits whereas male nationals could access either a house or a piece of land and money to build a house. In April 2009, the Federal National Council, in addition to giving Emirati women benefits for equal rights, approved a housing law allowing Emirati women married to non-Emirati men to receive government housing benefits, especially if the husband cannot provide a decent house for them, and even if their children do not have UAE citizenship. HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum approved in June 2011 new by-laws for the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme, expanding housing opportunities for Emirati women. Entitlement to housing assistance now includes widows and divorcees both with children, women without parents, husbands or family to support them, unmarried women over 30 years whose parents have died.

In making affordable housing a national priority, GCC governments should take into consideration the aspirations of both young men and women who are looking for a brighter and safer future.

The implementation of a national housing strategy in each of the GCC countries is vital. It should integrate economic, social and gender and cultural issues along with physical planning and development. Housing security is central for women and essential for their human dignity. This security is particularly important for women undergoing divorce proceedings when they are likely to lose ownership of their houses and end up with short-term rental arrangements. This situation will be worse for divorced women over 50 years with children and without economic security. But all GCC women with low incomes need access to safe and affordable housing with strong ties in the community to provide their support. Planning should include smaller affordable houses built within the city and not outside in the suburbs in order to prevent their marginalisation.

We need to explore the issue of women and housing in the region in depth. Gender-disaggregated data on housing supply is urgently required and gender-based analysis should be implemented in GCC housing policies to contribute to housing equality. We need to investigate further the needs of women from lower income groups to improve their status and work toward creating a safe and stable housing environment. Women themselves should participate in decision-making to improve their housing situation.

Let us not forget that women constitute half of the population and are essential to the development of a forward-looking society. That society will progress only if discriminatory cultural constraints are removed and women are not just acknowledged to have equal rights with men but also actively given those rights — in social housing as much as in other basic areas.

— Dr. Mona Al Munajjed (mona.almunajjed@gmail.com) is a sociologist, author and adviser on social and gender issues.

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