How we helped women become agents of change for urban development in India

Published on Friday, 16 October 2015

Published by Prabhjot R. Khan on Friday, 16 October 2015

A female community leader in Bhopal, India.
A female community leader in Bhopal, India.

Sixty-year-old Iqbal Bano heaved a sigh of relief when her slum was finally upgraded after 30 years in the sprawling Indian city of Bhopal. Iqbal is one of several women who decided to defy their traditional role as water and garbage collectors and became involved as community leaders in an ADB-supported urban development project covering four large cities (Bhopal, Gwalior, Indore, and Jabalpurin) in Madhya Pradesh, one of the country’s poorest states.

The 10-year project rehabilitated and expanded the water supply systems, and improved wastewater collection and treatment systems so for instance women would have more time to perform tasks other than just fetching water. It also included a number of special features that helped mobilize women’s participation in the development and upgrading of their own communities:

  • We developed guides for mainstreaming gender in the project, including an overall gender mainstreaming strategy that was drafted in collaboration with the Water for Asian Cities Program of UN Habitat, a gender action plan to ensure responsiveness to women’s needs, and a gender field manual that spells out how to integrate gender in the Municipal Action Plan for Poverty Reduction.
  • Community mobilization focused on women with assistance from NGOs, and community group committees—73% of whose members are women—were trained in pro-poor governance and collecting baseline information for planning and preparation of project reports.
  • The project converged with other slum improvement platforms such as the Madhya Pradesh Urban Services for the Poor Program by giving priority to the slum areas it covered.
  • We secured a commitment from the municipal government to implement the gender action plan by mainstreaming gender across project initiatives and providing community organizers and sociologists with gender expertise.

Participating in the urban development project, we learned from the beneficiaries, helped women like Iqbal build their self-esteem and self-determination in the face of challenges from their husbands, and other men in their communities. “Initially we faced a lot resistance from men, who told us to better stay at home,” recalled Nai Basti-Ranjhi, another community leader. “But we were determined because we were the ones facing the hardships in that we had to leave our small children every day without care and hence risk their lives to collect water.” The efforts of the women—and collaborating men—paid off. Since women were the ones that really knew what the community needed and which solutions would work, project implementers were able to incorporate their feedback into the design, and soon water, sanitation practices and environmental conditions, as well as in hygiene practices at the household and community levels, all improved.

Better access to reliable and quality water services has significantly reduced the workloads of women, who now have more time to attend to other tasks. Safety and health risks stemming from practices such as bathing, washing clothes and defecating far away from home have also been reduced, if not eliminated.
Likewise, participation in the project transformed the role of women from just beneficiaries to becoming true agents of change to help increased understanding of gender issues in water and sanitation, and strengthened institutional capacity in ensuring that men and women could benefit equally from water and sanitation investments.