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Local Community of Practice: Transforming gender relations through informal settlement upgrading

On the 20th of September 2018, Isandla Institute hosted the second and final Local Community of Practice of the year. Local community of practice meetings provide opportunities for NGOs in Cape Town, working in and on informal settlement upgrading, to reflect on the work they are doing, share their practices with other organisations, and learn from each other to strengthen and improve their organisational practices.

In attendance was the Social Justice Coalition (SJC); People’s Environmental Planning (PeP); Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC); Informal settlements Network (ISN); Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP); Development Action Group (DAG); and Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrade (VPUU).

The topic of the day was Transforming gender relations through informal settlement upgrading. Commonly, discussions on gender relations relate to gender based violence, equity, equality, and more recently gender responsive budgets. Seldom are gender relations discussed in the context of informal settlement upgrading. Yet, informal settlement communities are spaces in which gender roles and responsibilities play out. Stakeholders working on upgrading in such contexts need to recognise that informal settlement upgrading is not a gender-neutral process.

The local community of practice kicked off with a presentation by Isandla Institute’s urban land project officer, Rebecca Matsie. She set the tone for the discussion by introducing and framing the topic around the role of gender relations in community participation and settlement design. This was followed by Chris Giles from VPUU, who presented some findings on their gender-sensitive work in enhancing safety through improving the built environment of informal settlement conditions. The findings revealed that women tend to engage in participatory processes more than men. However, there was a tendency for men to take the leadership role in communities.

VPUU’s presentation highlighted that women’s concerns tend to relate to the need for security and access to services such as Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres in close proximity to households. This has informed VPUU’s intervention in settlement design where ECD centres are located in communal spaces and along access routes – referred to as Emthonjeni’s. These ECD centres are almost evenly distributed in a settlement for increased access by women and children. By so doing, VPUU uses settlement design to appeal especially to the needs of women and children. Conversely, the men in the community mostly raised issues related to sports facilities, politics and access to jobs.

The impact of age on prioritisations in a community participation process was also discussed. Within one gender group, age and marital status impact the influence certain community members have over others . Organisations working in these spaces need to be aware of this.

Philile Sigege from FEDUP presented on how the SDI SA Alliance has approached gender relations in informal settlements. FEDUP focuses on women who are very active in their neighbourhood by saving for the development of their community. FEDUP teaches them to save and assists the Alliance with data collection in the community. Through FEDUP, women partner with the municipality and CORC to build necessary communal assets such as halls or play parks. They do enumeration, community-led housing development, land acquisition & informal settlement upgrading. FEDUP has also reached out to the youth (cutting across gender categories), teaching them to save and helping them to access learnerships. With ISN, FEDUP does community empowerment through leadership training.

In the following session, a multi-media case study was screened, showing the plight of women in Bolivia who had no security of tenure in their marital homes as their names were not on the title deeds. This left many destitute when their marriages failed and were dismissed from their family home by their spouses. From this problem, a number of organisations, including Habitat for Humanity Bolivia, set up women leadership schools to empower women by teaching them about land and property rights. Through further community mobilising, the schools spread across the district in Bolivia and after two years the group of women leaders worked to influence policy and legislative changes. This unlocked tenure security for countless women and vulnerable households in Bolivia.

The presentations and documentary provided a segue into a reflective discussion on the respective work of the NGOs represented, their successes and areas of work that need to be focused on. This would help ensure that they do not entrench the gender power biases that exist, but empower the one gender so that they contribute better to their community and lead better lives.

Overall, the following lessons were distilled:

  1. Equality in terms of numbers i.e. having more women engaging does not necessarily mean they hold the influence/power in decision making and leadership through participatory processes. Therefore, an NGO would need to be aware of this to render the necessary support to marginalised voices.
  2. Upgrading outcomes must be gender sensitive. For instance, sanitation does not only mean access to a toilet but should consider the sanitary needs of women and children.
  3. When it comes to opportunities, both gender and age need to be factored in. There are variations in settlement requirements and interests based on both that will determine the way in which an upgrading project is implemented and the outcomes thereof.
  4. Collect data that is gender specific. Where gender specific data is collected, it should not be merely out of practice, but should inform the manner in which community mobilisation for participation in the upgrading processes is done.
  5. Culture plays a role in influencing gender relations. Cultural practices need to be considered, and where possible influenced to allow for gender parity in a manner that produces synergy and is beneficial for the community.

At the end of the day, the learning and discourse on gender relations in the context of informal settlement upgrading turned out to be a very important discussion. It reminded us, organisations working in and on informal settlement upgrading, to intentionally put gender on the programme as we continue in advocacy and implementation of informal settlement upgrading in the various geographical areas we work in, regardless of our operational modalities. The discussions held at this event will be instrumental in shaping Isandla Institute’s upcoming Practice Brief on the topic of Transforming gender relations in informal settlement upgrading, which will hopefully be a catalyst for further dialogue and action.

Written by: Martha Hungwe

Photo by: Isandla Institute


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Sharing the common goal of promoting participatory, effective, accountable and pro-poor local governance, the network strives to provide an interface for civil society organisations to network and share information towards strengthening local democracy in South Africa.