15,000 women transform housing conditions across India

Bijal Brahmbhatt Gender, Influencing, Participation and Leadership

Grassroots groups are helping improve the living and working conditions of hundreds of thousands of low-income women in urban informal settlements across India. By organising and influencing local service providers, local women help improve the reach and quality of local services, strengthen resilience to climate change and now provide awareness-raising and practical support about Covid-19. To date, they have helped improve the lives of around 1.8 million women. 

As part of the Inspiring Better Futures Case Studies, we delve deeper, interviewing the Director of Mahila Housing Trust (MHT) to understand how the women are making change at scale. 

Please introduce yourself.  

I am Bijal Brahmbhatt the Director of MHT.  

Tell us a bit about the background to MHT, why it was set up and what it does?  

MHT is an independent not-for-profit that supports low income women in informal urban settlements to improve their housing conditions. It grew out of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), an organisation of poor, self-employed women workers, after it’s members highlighted that poor and insecure housing were a big problem for livelihoods as well as living conditions because many work from home. 

When MHT started out, about 25 years ago, we didn’t have a blueprint for what to do so we went out to talk to women in informal urban settlements where we knew housing and living conditions were often very poor. For example, the women often lacked access to toilets or water. The women’s main demands were for improved water and sanitation, access to electricity, low-cost loans and improved housing conditions. Then about five years ago we also began to hear a lot of talk about climate change.

Women often work outside, for example in manual construction, but it was becoming too hot for them to do so. They were also experiencing increasing water scarcity meaning that they had to spend more time collecting water, reducing the time they could spend on productive work. Vector-borne diseases like dengue, malaria and chikungunya were also increasing.   

What impact have local women achieved?  

To date around 1,988 Community-Based Organisations (CBOs) with 163,716 members have been established in around 1,018 informal urban settlements across India. These organisations have in turn elected around 15,000 members of Community Action Groups and trained around 12,000 women leaders. The CBOs, with MHT support, have helped increase access to clean water and electricity for around 100,000 women, helped 25,000 women get more secure tenancies, conducted 28,000 energy audits, helped improve home ventilation and provide more efficient lighting (saving money on energy bills which can be used for economics purpose), trained women in construction skills and increased access to loans.  

How has scale been achieved?  

Scale is achieved by women’s groups influencing local municipalities to improve the quality and reach of services, rather than MHT seeking to provide services itself as some NGOs do. MHT goes out to informal urban settlements and helps organise women around their priority issues, whether water, energy, housing. We help set up CBOs in each area which all residents can join. Each CBO then elects a group of up to 10 women to represent them, known as a Community Action Group. MHT staff provide training to the Community Action Groups to enable them to negotiate with public and private sector service deliverers to improve the quality and reach of vital services.  We help the women understand the nature of local services, how they are delivered, how elected and administrative government structures works, how to navigate them.

Could you say a bit more about how your relationship with local service providers? 

We form constructive partnerships with local municipal service providers. These may be formal, for example when MHT staff or CBO members sit on their committees. Or informal. They don’t involve money. The women often use a dual strategy to influence local service providers involving both pull and push.  In the first instance, the women seek to influence and negotiate with service deliverers.  But sometimes more activism is needed to get the needed change in which case CBO members may organise petitions and protests as well. 

What has inspired you most?   

The grit of women! We have long relationships with the CBOs and so we get to see how women evolve over time. For example, how they come to understand and act on complex issues such as Climate Change, housing, or energy.   

Do you think your approach is relevant to people in other countries?

Yes, very relevant. Impact at scale would not have been achieved without the leadership, empowerment and mobilisation of local women. Empowerment is also a very sustainable approach: even if MHT withdraws from an area the women keep working, taking up issues for themselves and seeking out support if, and when, they need it.  

 Finally, could you tell us a little about your response to Covid-19?  

MHT provided training to the Community Action Groups to enable them to continue operating digitally with Zoom and WhatsApp during India’s 3-month lockdown. The Community Action Groups managed to get 10 million meals to people during that period, raised awareness locally about the need for social distancing and helped thousands of women to access government social security schemes! This was possible because the CBOs were already established and empowered and could agilely switch to working on a new issue with different methodologies. 

The Inspiring Better Futures case studies series shares insights from people who are successfully creating better futures even against the odds in some of the world’s toughest contexts in lower-income countries. All have achieved scale by tackling some of the underlying structural causes of the converging economic, gender and environmental crises that the world faces.  

Find out more about MHT and the Inspiring Better Futures series over on Policy and Practice


Bijal Brahmbhatt