What women want: how COVID-19 has highlighted the priorities and most pressing needs of urban poor women

by James Tayler


Sheela Patel discusses how COVID-19 has highlighted the priorities and most pressing needs of women living in informal settlements and tenements.

Women members of informal saving groups and of urban poor federations (and Slum Dwellers International) have long visited each other to share knowledge and experience. Learning from each other strengthens their organisations.

But lockdowns and transport restrictions during the pandemic prevented visits.

So these women learnt how to use the internet for their conversations, and from this they developed five priority areas. Four are presented in this blog:  roof over our heads; greens in our meals; women taking care of their own health; and wheels and wages. The fifth, ‘we can map vulnerability to climate change’ – is discussed in the next blog

It seems a long time ago that I wrote a blog calling on international funders to address grassroots organisations’ priorities; not theirs. I make the point that funders must listen to, and try to understand, the needs of  communities in distress, especially women. Most don’t.

The backbone of the Slum Dwellers International (SDI) movement are women savings groups. These groups support women left distressed, disenfranchised and alone by COVID-19. They bore the burden of not having paid work, not bringing in money, having to feed the family, having to cope with children who couldn’t go to school, of having an old-fashioned phone with very poor Wi-Fi.

Despite these constraints, a modest network emerged. Women from different cities began talking to each other once a week using smartphones. Then some began to talk to those in neighbouring countries. Gradually the mentors in the savings groups started discussing what they had learnt from these conversations between women.

These discussions came to focus on ‘what women want’ – a laundry list of everything women need to keep the family safe and healthy, and to survive the long-term impacts of the pandemic.

This included developing long-term sustainable solutions as well as addressing the deficits that impacted their daily life.

  1. A roof over our heads

‘A roof over our heads’ is an expression of security. Yet poor households face the challenge of leaking roofs that are destroyed by extreme weather. Initially, roofing is made of materials they can scavenge. Material that can be dismantled and used for rebuilding – such as xxxx –wood and plastic has more value than brick and mortar that once bulldozed, cannot be reassembled.  

In informal settlements, constant refurbishing maintains the house – but depletes incomes. How can we transition from wildly inappropriate housing standards which produce units unaffordable by most of the population, to ones which are affordable? Can we develop solutions that make housing cheaper, more robust and more quickly available – while the state produces basic amenities of water, sanitation/sewers/drainage, pathways and road access.

  1. Greens in our meals 

Soon after the lockdowns, the combination of local philanthropic work of NGOs and grassroot groups, and state interventions got cereals in most families’ food baskets.

The real absence was greens – in part because families were unable to afford them, in part because they were unavailable.

During conversations of women’s savings collectives, some suggested growing greens, and to identify recipes with at least one third greens. Those living in neighbourhoods with outdoor space started planting greens and sharing them with neighbours. Those with links to their municipality asked for empty lots. In Quezon City in  the Philippines, the mayor initiated and supported a citywide campaign of kitchen gardens and composting. The authorities in Chiang Mai province, Thailand allowed community organizations to convert a former garbage dump into a thriving urban farm.

  1. Women: take care of your own health please

The conversation about greens came from women complaining they were not feeling well. A few who had doctor check-ups found their blood pressure and diabetes had spiralled out of control. This was especially for older women who were menopausal or close to it. Women began to replace one third of their cereals with greens and take mild exercise. It was evident that while women were caring for their families and managing the d households, their health issues came last. 

We are gradually building a mechanism for measuring women’s health – going beyond a polite conversation to a deeper reflection of needs addressing. We hope it produces both preventive and curative outcomes.

  1. Wheels and wages

The complete closure of motorised public transport and the huge distances between informal settlements and the places where men and women work, and children go to school underpin accentuates the already deep isolation people are living in. .

Most women we spoke to talked of navigating both formal and informal transport options that are increasingly unaffordable. This restricted how far they could go to look for work.

Next steps

Women’s savings group leadership from across SDI is seeking three next steps. The first is to champion these processes – not only to their peers in their own city and country or SDI’s 32 country affiliates, but to all women living in urban areas.

They will work through their mayors networks, their social movements and support NGOs to demonstrate the value of prioritising these four areas.  This will not only change lives; it will help their city understand the steps needed to tackle COVID-19.

Step two is to show municipality representatives and local mayors the positive impact of focusing on these four areas. They need to ensure engagement with what women want does not die with the crisis. But also to recognize that women’s networks are fundamental to building more sustainable and resilient cities.

The third step is to support women’s networks to build a deeper understanding of the challenges of informality, so these challenges can be addressed.

The next blog in the series will discuss the fifth area of what women want: to map vulnerability to climate change in their community and city.

Sheela Patel is the founder and director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), India

This blog was originally posted on the IIED site, available here.