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Empowering Women in Poor Communities & Building Resilience Against Climate Pressure

Bijal Brahmbhatt is Director, Mahila Housing Trust

Credit: Mahila Housing Trust

AHMEDABAD, India, Jan 17 2020 (IPS) - As global temperatures continue to rise, vulnerable populations around the world are facing increasingly complex climate risks – with ongoing droughts in Zimbabwe and floods devastating Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.

From flooding and cyclones to heatwaves and droughts, the stresses and shocks inflicted by growing climate extremes are severe. And they cannot be tackled by one-track solutions, especially in resource-poor developing countries.

Instead, players in the global development space should take a more integrated approach when helping strengthen communities most at risk from climate shocks, to ensure that the interrelated challenges they face are addressed in their entirety.

For instance, in developing countries, rural poor families are often drawn to urban areas in search of better prospects, but often end up living in slums in a vicious cycle of perpetual poverty.

As well as putting greater strain on infrastructure, this displacement exposes them to unsanitary conditions – leaving them more vulnerable to illnesses and climate stresses, and often unable to work or improve their circumstances as a result.

So, for resilience-building solutions to be impactful and work for the whole community, either/or solutions will not suffice. Approaches that are either technical or social might be effective in strengthening one aspect of climate resilience – such as building flood defences, or improving access to potable water – but not more complex, interrelated issues.

It is only by integrating both social and technical approaches to resilience-building that more comprehensive, sustainable solutions can be constructed.

Developing a hybrid model is one way to achieve this, which is precisely what India-based Mahila Housing Trust has done with its mission to empower women in poor communities across South Asia to build resilience against increasing climate pressures.

Founded as an autonomous non-profit in 1994, Mahila Housing Trust has evolved into an agile social enterprise – aided in recent years by mentoring and support from the Global Resilience Partnership.

Using a combined social-technical approach to development, Mahila Housing Trust bridges the gap between poor women within high-risk contexts and mainstream institutions.

Through this hybrid model, it helps women improve their living conditions, build resilience against climate stresses and develop the leadership skills, knowledge and confidence necessary to participate in local governance.

Meanwhile, it ensures its commercial viability by training women to become agents of resilience solutions – from green energy and heat-mitigating technologies, to health interventions such as improved access to drinking water and better sanitation facilities.

The not-for-profit side of Mahila Housing Trust delivers back-end support to its empowerment and resilience-building programmes, while the enterprise side ensures the organisation and its beneficiaries are able to generate funding and income.

This hybrid model has also enabled Mahila Housing Trust to launch “Awaas Sewa” – a social enterprise dedicated to the development and implementation of innovative climate-resilient technologies.

The enterprise identifies, pilots, rates and validates new solutions, then teaches women leaders how to market them – building resilience amongst poor communities and generating a turnover at the same time.

Operating across seven cities in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, the enterprise has so far trained more than 1,500 women leaders to become “climate-saathis”, or climate partners.

In these roles, the women have conducted energy audits and helped families in more than 100 informal settlements to invest in energy-saving and climate-resilient solutions – such as heat-resistant modular roofing.

By converting this network into a sustainable enterprise, these women leaders now earn an income through promoting and selling energy-efficient, climate stress-combatting solutions – helping 27,000 others in their communities become more resilient in the process.

Plus, if women in the community need financial support to purchase and install these solutions, Mahila Housing Trust also has women-led credit cooperatives, which provides financing for climate-resilient technologies.

Yet this commercial aspect is only one small component of the organisation’s model; its sustained results so far have only been achieved through building partnerships across all different levels and sectors.

Strengthening the resilience of poor communities requires a bespoke, holistic approach that directly engages people on the ground. Maintaining a focused yet collaborative approach, Mahila Housing Trust works closely with a multidisciplinary team of partners in a united effort to improve the living conditions in poor urban communities.

With the goal of empowering women to improve their circumstances at the very heart of Mahila Housing Trust’s work, its partnerships mean the organisation can develop cross-cutting resilience solutions that address urbanisation, livelihoods and climate resilience all at once.

By adopting such an integrated approach, rather than just strengthening climate or economic resilience, development players can forge wholesale resilience amongst even the most vulnerable communities.

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