To build resilience, empower women

A meeting of the Mahila Self-Employed Women's Association Bank cooperative, with founder Elaben R. Bhatt.

Other than a few backward-looking politicians in Washington and their followers, most of us are well past arguing over whether the world is dramatically and fundamentally changing, and are onto the next thing: What are we going to do about it?

Resilience has become the next mindset supply stop on the road to the future. Whether it’s businesses or communities, this is the thing that will be most needed going forward.

The Global Resilience Partnership (GRP) was founded in 2014 to pursue this idea with a vision of "new solutions for new realities." Hence it established the Global Resilience Challenge, inviting groups and organizations to showcase their efforts "on bringing together people and organizations from across sectors to collaborate on innovative and transformative solutions to the toughest resilience challenges."

From among those submitting proposals, cash awards would be given to a select few to allow them to implement their plans. Specifically, the teams would focus on the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and South and Southeast Asia, with "locally driven, high-impact solutions that can build resilience at scale."

One recently announced winner was Mahila SEWA Housing Trust (MHT), an organization set up in 1994 "to combine the skills of technical assistance, legal knowledge and income generation opportunities with the housing finance expertise at SEWA Bank to serve the poor self-employed women members."

The trust’s mission is premised on the idea that "[s]elf employed women workers and producers are economically very active and contribute to the growth of the economy. They are mainly involved in production, trading and the service sector. However, in spite of their hard work and their contribution to the country's gross domestic product, they do not have access to financial services, which would help them to upgrade their own work and productivity." Video.

SEWA (which stands for "self-employed women’s association") Bank was founded in 1972 by Elaben R. Bhatt. One of Bhatt’s lessons learned was described in this statement: "Organization of these poor women is the best guarantor as member sisters give moral strength and confidence to each other." Bhatt has received numerous prizes and honorary doctorates, including a Radcliffe Medal, the Global Fairness Initiative Award and the Niwano Peace Prize.

In Mahila’s GRP Solutions Statement, jointly submitted with HomeNet South Asia, they describe their vision "to create a model wherein women take a lead through collective action and technology incubation, to devise locally relevant pro-poor and gender sensitive climate resilient solutions and promote a culture of sustainable development and resilience among the urban poor in South Asia." The effort will focus on seven cities in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

"Climate change affects everyone," said Bijal Brahmbhatt, MHT’s director, "but it affects the poor more."

When they talk about climate resilience, they are particularly concerned with four climate stressors: heat waves; flooding and inundation; water scarcity; and increased climate change-related incidence of water and vector-borne diseases.

These stressors are slower-onset and often less apparent than disasters and extreme events, although they severely affect the poor on a nearly continuous basis.

Dharmistha Chauhan, strategic advisor to Mahila Housing Trust, gave us an example of working in an urban slum. Among the things it does is to help the poor obtain access to water.

"Water rights in India are linked to home ownership. So unless you have housing in your name, access to water is very difficult. What we actually do is work with the community to create demand for the services, then we create organizations, select leaders and then go and put pressure on the government to bring out the main line and then work with service providers to actually make the connection. So what we actually do is work with these people to get access to these basic services."

This, she said, has been its most successful effort. "We’ve been able to provide these facilities to more than 100,000 families over the past 20 years."

It has performed a similar role in obtaining access to electricity. Inundation recovery is another area it works in. In some of these low-lying areas, drainage is so poor that even a small amount of rain can cause a flood. MHT helps these people obtain services and helps them waterproof their homes.

Its role goes well beyond such advocacy work. As managing trustee Renana Jhabvala said, “The Mahila Housing SEWA Trust is a technical agency. It has built toilets, laid drain pipes, built water tanks; it has constructed houses for the poor according to their need, affordability and specifications; it has conducted surveys required for implementing housing programs; and most importantly, it has done all this in areas where no private or even public agency was ready to enter, and has shown how housing for the poor can be successfully implemented.” 

Now that it has won the prize, it will be able continue and even expand its work. The main question which this new project, "Women Take Lead in Resilience Building of Urban Poor," seeks to answer is, "What are the most effective processes and solutions for increasing the resilience capacities of the urban poor — particularly women — in South Asia? Our hypothesis is that women’s-led community managed resilience models will be effective in enabling this."

Based on its years of experience and successful track record in this area, I expect that its hypothesis will be proven correct.

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