Mahila Housing Trust (MHT) is one of 10 challenge winners of the Global Resilience Challenge to transform interconnected risks into opportunities. MHT works to build the resilience capacities of over 25,000 low-income families living in slums and informal settlements across seven South Asian cities. MHT promotes women’s leadership through membership groups called community-based organizations. Members, called Vikasinis, address habitat issues in their own communities to engage with city-level decision-making and strengthen their influence on urban development plans and policies.
Meena Soni lives in an informal settlement in Ahmedabad, India. Before MHT began working with her community, she would regularly return home to darkness and a blocked, overflowing sewage system. Most of her neighbors also lived with frequent electricity outages and faulty sewers.
Despite Meena’s community sewer spreading diseases and causing unhygienic conditions, the local authorities were not responding. With the support from MHT, she was empowered to play an active role in solving the faulty infrastructure and unsanitary wastewater problem.
Meena repeatedly reported that the sewer was blocked and flooded. Her initial reports were to no avail. However, she persisted—taking pictures and collecting signatures—until finally convincing officials to repair the sewer. Meena attributes her role as a Mahila Woman’s Leader, regaining her confidence, dignity, and voice, as being instrumental to this achievement.
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It is estimated that over 190.7 million people live in informal settlements in South Asia, many facing the same challenges as Meena’s community. These settlements are often densely populated and highly vulnerable to even the slightest changes in the climate. The MHT team works to empower communities to adapt to the most pressing climate-related risks they face: heat waves, flooding, water scarcity, and water- and vector-borne diseases.
To do this, MHT equips the urban poor with tools and knowledge to undertake vulnerability and risk assessments and implement their own resilience plans. Utilizing a network of woman advocates, they empower women—and in turn, their communities—to influence city planning and enable adaptation and resilience actions which reflect a pro-poor agenda.
In Meena’s case, she now knows where to request assistance in a crisis, how to monitor the quality of services provided, and how to address problems on behalf of the whole community. When the electricity or water services fail, neighbors report it to Meena as a trusted facilitator who knows how to take steps toward a solution.
This empowerment model is central to the success of MHT’s approach; galvanizing women in local communities to grow individually and enabling them in turn to help develop the broader community.
Defining and acting on risk
A defining characteristic of climate adaptation and resilience programs like MHT is a focus on shocks and stresses, as well as the risks they pose to communities and development outcomes. This often means situating resilience and adaptation programs at the heart of geographies where the most intractable issues manifest—with marginalized and vulnerable communities in the most volatile contexts.
Just as shocks and stresses come in diverse forms, MHT’s products are multiple and varied. It has established a social enterprise Award, SEWA, to distribute climate-smart products, such as solar panels and clean stoves, in informal settlements. The enterprise relies on local distributors like Meena to reach deep into communities and increase access to adaptation tools for pre-empting and mitigating challenging future events. In addition, MHT developed advanced mobile apps to collect information and exchange knowledge across different informal settlements These apps are an effective tool for mobilizing large communities during sudden or protracted crises.
It is for this work, and more, that MHT was recognized in several awards during 2019. As one of fifteen winners of the 2019 United Nations Global Climate Action Awards, MHT was honored for their work to mobilize women as catalysts for creating positive change. When receiving the prestigious United Nations Sasakawa Award for Disaster Risk Reduction, judges cited that “Through combining indigenous and scientific knowledge to create a more inclusive and climate resilient world for families, considering children, the elderly, and differently abled, MHT demonstrated one of the most ‘durable, sustained, and comprehensive and inclusive approaches towards disaster risk reduction.”
MHT celebrated its 25th anniversary in November 2019 with a gathering of thousands of women and families who it has reached over the years to increase capacity to deal with shocks, surprises and volatility. MHT is featured in GRP’s 2019 Resilience Insights report, a distillation of lessons from more than 60 programs across 16 countries.
Simone Verkaart is the Design and Impact lead for Global Resilience Partnership (GRP). She manages the design, operationalization and implementation of GRP’s programme-wide monitoring, evaluation and learning activities.