Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) governments are meeting the challenge of providing affordable housing for low- and average-income nationals through some bold initiatives and strategies. But women still face discrimination under most GCC regulations for getting land, housing or interest-free construction loans.
Although international conventions recognise the right of all human beings to equal access to land and housing, including women and those living in poverty, women in the GCC countries still face legal and social discrimination in their access to housing, as they are not granted the same rights as men to the affordable housing services provided by their governments. Gender discrepancies are emanating from the patriarchal system favouring men over women and giving priority to adult males in housing distribution. Some GCC governments have acknowledged the problem and issued new legislative and administrative reforms to improve the access of poor, divorced and widowed women to affordable housing, but these measures don’t go far enough.
The Bahrain Ministry of Housing does not grant women the same rights as men for getting housing units or receiving loans to purchase housing. Bahraini women are granted houses from the government only if they are widowed or divorced with custody of their children. New amendments in 2004 to the Housing Law granted housing services for working women with stable incomes supporting their family and with no real estate. However, this only partially benefits women as they still need their husbands’ permission to request assistance to own a housing unit, which they may not be entitled to in the case of divorce.
The Kuwaiti Housing Law excludes Kuwaiti women, whether single or married, from taking advantage of the government’s low-interest housing-loan policy, which is usually provided to Kuwaiti men who are heads of families. Divorced or widowed women from low-income groups suffer the most as they lose their claim to homes purchased initially through this programme even if they made previous payments on the loan. Exceptionally, divorced women with children can claim a rent allowance if they do not remarry and have no financial support. A Kuwaiti woman married to a non-citizen cannot by law qualify for a government housing loan programme.
The Kuwaiti government has recently made some serious efforts to provide housing services for Kuwaiti women, especially divorcees, widows, those married to non-Kuwaitis and unmarried women who have lost both parents. An agreement was reached in August 2010 between the Cabinet and Parliament’s Women’s Affairs Committee to establish a fund of almost $ 1.8bn for women’s housing. The Public Authority for Housing Welfare issued a new regulation in July 2011 giving eligible women access to a residential loan of $250,000, increasing the demand for condominium apartments throughout the country. The Kuwaiti government has constructed special apartment buildings for divorced women and childless couples but this has led to their social isolation and marginalisation.
Under the old Omani Housing Law, all working men over 25 were granted land to build private housing using a low-interest mortgage. Exceptionally, divorced women would get a free tract of land. To ensure gender equality between its citizens, Oman amended its land law in November 2008 by granting Omani men and women equal rights to own residential land. However, cultural norms and local traditions are still an obstacle for women to gain access to housing independently. Housing loans and land-ownership applications remain discriminatory, giving fewer women the opportunity to become landowners. In April 2009, the government started allocating land to Omani women. In June 2011, major changes were introduced to the Housing Law issued by Royal Decree Number 37/2010 by providing an Omani woman married to a non-Omani entitlement to housing assistance with her children, as well as Omani male and female offspring with no breadwinners in the family.
The Housing Law introduced in Qatar in 2007 secured housing services for men and women, expanding the opportunities for Qatari and non-Qatari women to take advantage of government housing programmes. Qatari women married to foreign nationals residing in the country for the previous five years can also benefit from government housing, as well as widows and divorced women with children who have not inherited homes from their husbands, and unmarried women over 35 years old who support members of their family.
Those with special needs are also eligible for state housing assistance. All Qatari government employees, both male and female, are entitled to a minimum loan of $220,000 to buy a plot of land to build a house. The amount may be raised to $330,000. However, there is still discrimination when applying the law: A man is given priority as he is considered the head of the household and responsible for providing housing for his wife and children. The Supreme Council for Family Affairs is currently working with relevant ministries to secure the rights of women under the housing law.
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 is a sociologist, author and adviser on social and gender issues. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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