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What is the role of gender in Spatial Data Infrastructure?

By Sandra Rodriguez Castaneda, on 20 July 2021

This blog is adapted from an essay submission for the MSc Urban Development Planning module ‘The City and its Relations: Context, Institutions and Actors in Urban Development’


Introduction

Is land a source for gender equality? “Perhaps the most significant pro-poor urban transformation of the late twentieth century had to do with the gains of the feminist movement and the emergence of gender-based planning” (Parnell, p.27, 2015). , However, there is still a long way to go before women have an equal role in cities and rural areas. In the case of land, it is fundamental to the development of women’s identity, wellbeing and mobility (Chant & Datu, 2015). It is acknowledged that good management of land is key addressing gendered concerns. However, how does gender figure in the technologies of Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) that underlies good land management? Therefore, this post investigates how SDI is gendered and argues that this has consequences for land administrators seeking more equity.

There are multiple processes around the land in which the gender approach must be studied and taken into account. Generally, when talking about gender and land, it is often based on the reformulation of policies around women´s right to access land, land distribution and titling programmes. What this tends to leave aside is how data is integrated to understand the relationship between land and women’s public-private roles. Additionally, land standards are applied to define guidelines but they tend to miss the intersectionality of gendered social relations, and methodologies for assessing indicators around land use and tenure do not reflect women’s real participation.

Despite the fact that the SDI seeks to facilitate and improve processes and decisions around land, the technological and modern component does not resolve the question of the role of gender in its understanding and comprehension.

I argue for the need to have a holistic vision to generate knowledge and cooperation to understand the role of gender in spatial data. Therefore, the tools developed to support land management should be understood under a differential and gender inclusionary approach.

 

Why is this argument important?

In this section, two examples will be explored to provide evidence why this argument is different and important. The first example is based on the fact that SDI is a technological component intended to facilitate decision making around land and productivity. Therefore, its focus is on capturing spatial information, and it does not have an explicit differentiating approach that considers social roles that make up land relations. The second example is based on evidence of the current situation of the relationship between women and land, and it is argued that the specific needs of women are not clearly understood, and so discrimination that replicates colonising models continues to exist.

According to Coleman and McLaughlin (1998, p.9), SDI “encompasses the policies, technologies, standards and human resources necessary for the effective collection, management, access, delivery and utilisation of geospatial data in a global community”. Definitions such as these suggest that the main objective of SDI is based on effectiveness, while the social component is limited to human resources and the use of data in the community. Rajabifard and Williamson (2003, p.3) note that, “SDI is much more than data and goes far beyond surveying and mapping, it provides an environment within which organisations and/or nations interact with technologies to foster activities for using, managing and producing geographic data”. However, even in this wider view, SDI as a social approach remains very much implicit in thinking about how SDI can be an enabling tool for organisations and nations.

In this light, what kind of data should be generated to understand social roles and especially women’s roles? This first example shows, through the most cited definitions of SDI above, that raising the question around the role of women in this technological tool is significant. As an additional element, it is also worth noting that inherent in technology itself is a complex language that is often based on strategic and rational concepts that leave aside social components (Cohn, 1987). Therefore, technology could become a gender-unequal tool despite being conceived to be gender-neutral if there is not a broader approach and understanding. We are in search of more socially and spatially just cities, so it is valuable to think about using the technological tools that support decisions about land to generate a more inclusive vision.

The role of women has been affected by sexist and colonising models that have limited their access to land. Throughout history, the subordination of women in society, based on a patriarchal structure, has been in evidence. Also, it is assumed that housing policies affect men and women equally when it is evident that there is discrimination against women (Borja & Castells, 1997).  As a result, it is essential to understand that there are socially constructed roles of women in the household and society: productive, reproductive, community managing and politics (Levy, 2009) that must be understood from a diverse perspective and taking into account the context and identity characteristics of each woman (age, religion, ethnicity). Accordingly, it is valuable to ask how this is reflected in the capture of information, in the standards implemented, in data analysis policies and in land governance in general.

According to FAO (2018, p.1), “Reliable, sex-disaggregated data on land is crucial for highlighting disparities in land rights between women and men. (…) there is still a lack of understanding as to what data are available and needed, and what they can tell us about women’s land rights”. This shows that there is still some way to go in understanding the role of women and the discrimination they face in relation to land rights. Given that SDI is an important part of land administration it will be important to work on how the inclusion and protection of women’s land rights can be enhanced through technology.

 

Conclusion and final discussion

This post presents an essential question in the context of SDI and gender equity. The framing of the question outlines a new challenge that combines the rational understanding of technology, the social dynamics around the land, the recognition of women’s real needs and the use of spatial tools. Consequently, technology should not be seen as a sole means of efficiency and productivity but also of inclusion.

Among the challenges that this question implies are to generate a holistic and decolonising vision that helps breaking with stereotypes and exclusionary models that are reflected in women’s lack of access to land, in the absence of protection of their rights, and the lack of representation and participation in decision-making related to land administration. Furthermore, it is necessary to understand that the relationship between women and land is complex and requires recognition of their roles in the public and private sphere. This will lead to the identification of the different entry points that need to be studied in order to find effective solutions according to time, scale and space.

Finally, “prosperity is not an inevitable outcome of urbanisation, and in the absence of appropriate management, cities can become sinkholes of poverty and inequality” (Chant & Datu,2015, p.40). Therefore, raising the question of the role of women in SDI shows that it is not enough to have efficient geographical tools; their appropriate use and management is fundamental to fight against poverty and inequality. Thus, the pressure of globalisation and the search for productivity need to be oriented to create new questions that confront the status quo and do not blind the construction of inclusive policies and strategies.

 

 

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Sandra Esperanza Rodriguez Castañeda is undertaking her Master’s degree in Urban Development Planning at the University College of London. As a civil engineer, she has worked and led projects related to geomatics, geographical information systems, cadastre, and transport.

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