CEMENTING A FUTURE: Women’s Leadership in a Reconstruction Program
Contribution to: GROOTS International Compendium

Supported by: UNDP


Prema Gopalan

Swayam Shikshan Prayog
Mumbai, India

October 1999

1. About Us

SSP, Swayam Shikshan Prayog began as a networking process with rural organisations and groups in 1989 as an initiative of SPARC. At that time, SPARC – Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres was working with the pavement dwellers in city of Bombay. To facilitate the rural initiative, an experienced member of SPARC established platform for learning with rural NGOs and groups.

Ten years later, SSP partners with over five hundred women’s groups in two rural districts of Maharashtra. The vision and approach revolve around transformation of local communities through an empowerment process that ensures the central participation of women’s groups in community processes. A three way partnership between SSP, women’s groups and the government as its history in the post earthquake program in the rural districts of Maharashtra. Today SSP partners with women’s groups as its multiple issues such as credit, housing, food security, livelihoods, etc.

2. Overview

After the earthquake in September 1993 in the Marathwada region in India, the World Bank and the Government undertook one of the nation’s largest rehabilitation efforts. The Repair and Strengthening (R&S) of damaged houses in hundreds of poor rural villages was the single largest program component. Announced as a community-based, owner driven initiative, these elements were missing when the R&S program was first implemented. Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) was appointed in 1994 to address this need by facilitating community participation. With local women’s organizations – Mahila Mandals in 300 villages across two districts, SSP initiated a large scale information, dialogue and monitoring campaign that empowered local people to own and lead the process of rebuilding their homes and communities.

Once the government transferred the power to implement IMAGE:

and monitor the R&S program to village-based women’s organizations, powerful changes started to happen. Local residents started functioning as partners and initiators, and stopped operating as ‘victims’. As the official interface between the people and the government, women’s groups were able to engage and energize all the actors. Women as well as men house owners, Gram Panchayat members, district officials, engineers and masons became active participants and cooperative partners.

From this experience, SSP wanted to share the lesson that post-disaster programs offer strategic opportunities to develop the capacities of local people and women in particular. How communities are organized to deal with crisis, rehabilitation, and external aid determines if they will function as ‘victims’/ ‘beneficiaries’/or ‘directors of change’ and the efficiency of resource use. A "people centered" approach to disaster can promote both governments’ accountability to citizens regarding access to information and resources and strengthen local residents as informed participants and decision-makers. It can support women’s visibility and social effectiveness, and move them from the margin to the mainstream.

Successful, people-centered approaches to post disaster programs have macro effects. The perspective and policies of the state and multi-lateral agencies change. Decision-makers better understand and value the competencies of local communities. Communities are mobilized and trained to maintain their participation. Resources and decisions associated with future development efforts are now within the reach of traditionally marginalized groups and communities. They have the capacity to become self-governing.


3. Assessment of the Situation

Design of the State-Led Project

The Latur earthquake on September 30, 1993 was a large-scale disaster, killing 10,000 people and damaging more than a million homes in an already socially backward and underdeveloped part of Maharashtra State. At both the state and national level, the government had never faced such a calamity. In response, the World Bank, the U.N. and hundreds of aid and voluntary organizations entered the scene, pledging relief and reconstruction assistance.

The disaster emergency project was one of the country’s largest World Bank supported projects. Hence it had multiple actors, enormous resources high visibility and deadlines that went with emergency aid projects. In this case, the project was planned with an assumption that community self help efforts would achieve project goals. In contrast, the level of preparedness was low. Low response of communities combined with invisibility of women in community processes were among key factors that shaped SSP’s early interaction with communities.

The governments’ priority was to repair and strengthen as many damaged traditional homes as possible. The Repair and Strengthening (R&S) Program covering 2,00,000 households in 1300 villages in the two districts of Latur and Osmanabad districts was conceived as a community based/owner-driven initiative. The government offered a subsidy grant of Rs.17,000/- to each family with a damaged home and appointed a thousand-plus government engineers to oversee the reconstruction. Owner initiative did not get translated easily. Homeowners were expected, to contribute their labour to rebuild their homes. However, this did not happen.

Initial State of Reconstruction Efforts

With earthquake tremors continuing in the area, people feared new quakes and additional damage. Many thought that only new houses would be safe and secure, and rejected the traditional old mud roof and stone wall houses as unsafe. Since engineers did not see it as their role to share information or facilitate dialogues with the communities, residents were unaware that new building practices could be used to secure traditional homes.

Village leaders and the local self-government (the Gram Panchayat) were also left out of the information loop and thus were powerless to strengthen R&S efforts. The government’s centrally planned, top down program approach had undermined peoples’ ability to function as essential actors.

By controlling information and locking people out, financial and human resources were wasted and misused. Villagers were vulnerable to corrupt government engineers and masons seeking bribes, overcharging or providing faulty construction. The failure to consult men and women house owners in design and building decisions resulted in box like houses that went unused. Women realized too late, that the house design didn’t provide for everyday needs to store water and food grains, install or use a chula (stove). Crucial household functions couldn’t be performed. Reconstruction costs escalated further from a shortage of masons, water, and cash to transport and buy materials. In village after village, people were frustrated and mistrustful of the complexities of the reconstruction process.

Conflicting Views of Community Participation

When SSP began working as Community Participation Consultants in 1994, essential actors - NGOs, donors and government agencies - lacked a shared perspective of participation. Neither the World Bank nor the state had envisioned how to involve or support communities through the reconstruction program. Their idea of people’s participation emphasized families contributing labor to the construction process. Short, not long-term priorities were stressed.

Investments were based on time bound, emergency concerns - distributing ‘aid’ to individual beneficiaries to facilitate rapid home reconstruction. By giving priority to individuals and not the community, the R&S program was encouraging competition and poor accountability. Politicians were stage-managing the process of listing and recognizing the households eligible for government subsidies. Community groups were competing fiercely for scarce resources.

Gender concerns were also missing from the reconstruction and community participation strategies. Although women typically dominate the home sphere and direct family members to participate in jobs related to it, the program ignored this fact. Women were left out of planning, design and construction. They were excluded, privately and publicly, from post-disaster efforts.

3. Re-interpreting and Re-designing the R&S Program

SSP wore two hats in this post disaster project. We wore an advisory mantle to the World Bank and the government on community participation and. were equally committed to organising and building local capacities.

Among the many challenges that SSP faced were:

We knew from prior experience that:

  1. A critical mass of actors is needed to transform a project into a community-centered initiative
  2. Our role as NGO facilitators was to provide access, opportunities, and resources for organized women and community groups but not to implement or direct.
  3. Fostering learning and capacity building, in the context of survival efforts like housing and construction, catalyzes communities to sustain a demand for ongoing participation.

SSP’s new approach included mass education of earthquake affected communities, building skills and capacities to use new technology, creating districtwide network of community groups and creating pilot projects to demonstrate community approach.

The seeds of the self education strategy, in over 100 villages emerged from exchanges that were hosted by the community construction groups in Wadala and Masobawadi.

They came over in buses, jeeps… .Entire community groups came to see how "collective construction" was possible. As SSP, we were keen that peoples exchanges resulted in transfer of knowhow on technology and the advantages in working collectively. The most important message was that women had a role to play in rebuilding their homes.

When the construction committees were formed, women took new roles-handled money, materials, and took on tasks to supervise labour.It was women who led the collective effort. Once they were convinced, materials were purchased together, money was pooled together, common problems were resolved by consulting the entire community. As a result, construction costs were kept low. Introducing traditional design features in what was basically planned as a urban dwelling was a challenge. Space for the animals, having space to store water, having space to store the grains. How do you make that house a home? How people could work together, and how women could be part of the community decision making.

Some of the lessons from our experience can be used by others in disaster situations to get people to change the way they think. About how they live and how they work. We saw it as an excellent opportunity to demonstrate this.

The demonstration had a snowball effect in convincing communities and govt. that active participation of communities instead of a brick and mortar approach was needed. Further, SSP was convinced that mass scale transfer of a community based approach could only occur if women’s groups were central to the reconstruction program.

It was a year later in early 1996, that SSP was actually able to negotiate with the govt. on supporting the "Samvad Sahayak" scheme to appoint community organisers. With this, women’s groups were empowered with authority to oversee the entire reconstruction and give feedback to officials.

4. Centering Women’s groups in the reconstruction of their Homes and Communities

It was an uphill task to create conditions for community participation within this state-led program. SSP chose to reshape the rehabilitation program to focus on ways women's groups and communities could be centrally involved, interact with the government, and develop as a result.

In the face of large scale intervention in the area, women were confined to "traditional spaces" of their homes. In the reconstruction effort, women were not employed as labour or trained as masons, and did not oversee construction of their houses. Men in the community, the political leadership and policy makers in the government did not view "housing as a gender issue". Instead a brick and mortar approach was adopted. Following the tradition in the area, the govt. employed men as engineers, masons and labour were male, and within households men were making choices about housing. There was little or no space for women for to be deciding things in their houses and in the community.

The problem of how communities would be involved, was viewed differently by the key actors. The government assumed people would build their houses (though they had no experience of building with new technology). The World Bank was committed to a notional definition of community participation. The local NGO’s had no experience of working on housing and construction issues. Meanwhile, SPARC, with it’s previous experience in housing viewed the entire intervention as a very powerful tool to organise women and communities and assist communities in the long term transition from disaster to development issues.

Establishing Mahila Mandals / Women’s groups as the Key Community Actors

Identifying a village level agency that could assist beneficiaries in the R&S program and monitor progress became crucial early on. SSP, entrusted with this responsibility, chose to identify community-based organizations that could take on this work. Field surveys we did showed that every village had at least one women’s group.

In early 1996, SSP began its work on the "Samvad Sahayak" scheme. Meetings were organised with five hundred women’s groups in all blocks in the two districts. Wide publicity was given through pamphlets, advertisements in newspapers and mass media to inform women’s groups. They were inactive in their villages when SSP held these meetings with women’s groups in the villages. Women’s groups also didn’t see a role for themselves in the earthquake reconstruction, considering it a male domain.

SSP was willing to take up the challenge of activating the women's groups, aware of the potential it represented. We felt that the active and informed participation of women's groups would have at least two major benefits.

First, it would motivate families and communities. Second, it would engender and equalize disaster and development efforts that were leaving women behind. The vision of empowering women in the earthquake program and supporting their ongoing involvement in local development after it was over, was both exciting and challenging for us.

Implementing the Samvad Sahayak’s (Community Organizer) Approach

SSP had several specific goals in mind:

We knew that the women's groups, and not individual women, needed to be at the center stage of the entire program. The question was how to operationalize it. From this challenge emerged the Samvad Sahayak scheme. The community organisers formally had the responsibilities of supporting house owners and community groups in the more technical aspects of the reconstruction program, including:

But the real challenge was to build consensus within the village. This included convincing house owners of the need to build earthquake resistant houses and then linking them to the range of officials who would need to cooperate to get this done. Community organizers were formally recognized as the official interface between community residents and the administration. This was a crucial element as it gave them a status they needed to resolve problems.

SSP, to help the women’s groups deliver a success, initiated a large-scale capacity building strategy that focused upon information sharing, networking, training, and exchanges across communities to encourage peoples’ involvement in the R&S program. Community organizers on the SSP team did a hands on training with the women’s groups in all the villages to initiate a cycle of activity that usually began with a survey of house owners. After several visits and close interaction (especially with the

Samvad Sahayaks or community organisers were appointed by women's groups in 300 villages to motivate house owners to participate in repair and reconstruction of houses and liason with the district administration. This initiative was supported by the government.

women), women gained a clear assessment of home owners’ situation. Women’s groups also were taught to understand functional design features in the house and to form small groups to supervise construction.

After mapping out settlements, and assessing village resources, women were encouraged to attend village assemblies. Women’s group members would meet at the block level to visit administration offices and to gain exposure through study tours, and workshops and dialogue with government.

Given the responsibilities of the community organiser, the women’s groups were under pressure to guarantee their success and ensure that the program functioned well in their village. In a mistrustful, deadline driven environment, they had to prove they could inform, motivate and supervise house owners.

For the first time, women stepped out of their houses to take on leadership roles in the village. Women who had never before left their homes, were now meeting regularly with house owners, explaining construction techniques, and negotiating support from the village committees and local self governments. They were attending meetings with taluka officials and, with group leaders, they held exposure visits to best practice villages.

But in every village, women met with opposition from the men in their own family, village leaders, male engineers and officials who believed that women could not take on public roles. The women's groups worked out simple strategies to counter this hostility:

Women’s leadership facilitated the use of village assemblies as pro-active problem solving arenas where resources could be gained.

Meeting these challenges, yielded many gains. The `Samvad Sahayaks’ scheme gave women’s groups visibility and legitimacy that boosted their confidence and credibility in functioning as a village level implementation agency.

Outside the village, the community organisers began travelling to the block office and intensified contact with the senior officials. At the fortnightly block meetings, community organisers would update information and present detailed accounts of beneficiaries’ progress, summarize problems and suggest ways to overcome them. The women soon won the administrations’ respect for their ability to perform multiple roles and resolve problems.

The Spirit of Community Ownership

In the second phase, the different actors in the earthquake rehabilitation program began to take on new roles. Women gave concrete advice and offered technical solutions to local house owners (regarding the choice and collective purchasing of building materials, house design, etc.). Women's groups and village volunteers had benefited from the construction supervision workshops and in turn were educating house owners.

Families identified themselves as homeowners, not aid beneficiaries, and contributed in many ways: donating labor, buying materials, and advancing payment to contracted masons and labor. Women came forward to discuss their suggestions for house design and planning and the community organisers facilitated interactions with engineers and masons to incorporate these functional features.

Local, self-help solutions emerged for problems involving common walls, masons, and lack of water. In several villages, women’s groups set up and joined functional committees for accessing water, purchasing, cash flow accounting, construction supervision and problem solving. Collectives were organized for the purchase of materials, collection of material coupons and submission of lists for grants.

Officials changed noticeably--responding to problems and acting on complaints. Problems commonly faced were brought to the notice of the village officials. Other problems related to receiving cash and materials were brought up through monitoring at the block level review meetings with officials. This resulted in many benefits, both for house owners and communities.

Women Shaped the Community Program at Many Levels

The transition of Mahila Mandals from welfare to development was not easy.

In the first orientation program, women community organisers brought men from their families. Women confessed to travelling for the first time to the city. Men had followed as they were unbelieving that the govt could actually offer jobs to women.

In the communities, women were unsure and needed tremendous support to begin work. Engineers were unwilling to give information, masons refused to be supervised and bankers turned away women. In the first round, the MM went straight to the heart of the problem. In Usturi, for eg. The junior engineer was taking bribes supported by the nexus of officials. So the women went up to officials in the district and complained.

Women acted as a resource team to provide leadership in shaping the community based reconstruction program. The program was organized on these levels:

Broadening women’s language, women’s voice

As women became familiar with construction terms and technology, an attitude change took place. They became confident to share these skills with others. Communities appreciated what women had learned and their willingness to pass it on. It became an example of local capacity.

Community Contribution

Community organisers persuaded house owners cooperation and contribution of labor to transport materials and complete construction. The increase in contribution in some cases speeded up the construction process. Use of materials from the traditional houses: Doors and windows frames, stones up to foundation and sill level, ballis and CGI sheets.

Managing collective construction

Organizing groups of house owners as community effort to find collective solutions and practice groups in the village. Collectively undertake planning of houses, costing of the construction process, sharing costs, house designs, and supervision of construction, handling the engineers as a group of house owners and joint supervision of masons and labor.

Linking with local self governments

In several villages, where local self governments had not conducted village assemblies, women's groups showed the way. Village assemblies were used to create awareness on the program, for problem identification and problem solving of individual house owners, collectively resolving to demand changes in procedures and getting support from block level officers, banks etc.

Meetings with local self governments were used to solve by the women's groups to highlight problems linked to reconstruction efforts, water, lack of transport and lack of roads to bring building materials.

Greater recognition of Women's Groups

In several villages, groups were recognized as village development agencies. Monitoring of ration shops, health centers, anganwadiÌs, representation of women's priorities and active participation in village assemblies. Previously inactive Women's groups had been activated. Many more women attended meetings and the membership had increased. Sharing experiences on savings and credit groups. Demand for access to anti poverty schemes including identification and linking beneficiaries to get latrines in the village sanitation scheme.

Savings and credit groups: were promoted by SSP based on our experience that these activities strengthen women's groups. As of 1998 June, more than six thousand women were members of four hundred collectives.

These groups became involved in monitoring health, education, and anganwadi facilities, managing drinking water and sanitation programs and linking to anti-poverty schemes to increase local resources.

Expanding women’s groups activities: For the IMAGE:
first time the Women's groups held meetings with women. These meetings were the only source of information and exposure for women. They responded with increased participation in their own houses as labor and supervised masons to ensure earthquake safe houses.

Women’s groups involvement in reconstruction meant that contacts for the village increased with govt. officials. This visibility, more often than not, resulted in access to resources for the village.

Joint meetings were arranged with the Gram Panchayats. It helped to highlight the achievements and the role of women's groups in reconstruction and in implementing government programs. Women's groups had proved their worth as an important link between the rehabilitation program and local development in these two districts.

Visible success

Women's groups catalyzed community participation in all stages of program monitoring and implementation. Their contribution was immediately recognized among the women themselves, by communities and the government and their visibility and status rose accordingly.

The Community Organiser scheme was viewed by SSP as a definite way to bring women's groups to the forefront of local development. In the early stages, it took many meetings and village visits to convince the first batch. Yet, SSP activists were equally quick to acknowledge that as NGOs, they were merely facilitating and the Women's groups were leading the change process.

The women's collectives created a sense of support for women within and outside the family. They turned every opportunity into support for women's involvement in village activities. The earthquake program was presented as a cause for working together across caste lines. Mahila Mandal identity as a resource provider and problem solver in relation to accessing government schemes.

5. Lessons

At the start of this document, we had outlined that success people centred approaches to post disaster programs could have macro effects. Some of these macro effects are described in what follows:

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