Lilongwe women leveling inequality in construction

Wonderful Hunga, Lilongwe Community Manager
Lilongwe, 26 August 2015

In Lilongwe, a massive low-cost rental-housing scheme called Likuni Meadows is using women contractors. So far, the 30 women have constructed over 200 units, most of which are already occupied.

These women are not qualified engineers or project managers. Instead, they are ordinary mothers and grandmothers, many of whom were not able to complete their schooling. They all share financial discipline, work ethic, and the ability to think outside the box. Interestingly, all of these women contractors started off as members of savings and lending schemes in the informal settlements of Lilongwe: in 2003, they launched their groups under the Malawi Homeless People's Federation. They earned the trust of their counterparts in the groups and rose to positions of treasurers. This is how they eventually developed the financial management skills required in an astute construction manager.

The women contractors, as they have come to be called, are working alongside a property development company called The Housing Company. The Housing Company, which is a subsidiary of the Enterprise Development Holdings, is working on a Community Led Infrastructure Finance Facility programme to provide housing for low-income households in Lilongwe.

Initially, the women were working with the Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE) as sanitation contractors. Through this work, they mobilized households and helped them procure and construct ecological sanitation toilets through a sanitation loan fund administered by Epik Finance. Currently, CCODE is running a Comic Relief project to support women contractors, and will train 200 of them by 2017.

The contractors receive five percent of the construction cost, which they usually invest in their families. The women now own houses and some even have cars. The women contractors hire builders and other labourers, who are mainly men. Engineers, surveyors, and architects from The Housing Company provide technical support to the women, ensuring the quality of results and helping to challenge the perception of women in the construction sector.

A year ago, during elections time in Malawi, civil society organisations mounted a rigorous campaign to elect 50 percent female representation in the Malawi National Assembly and in local government. Massive investments poured in, but less than 30 percent of the women secured political positions. Unlike these women, the women contractors started off small, as members of the savings schemes, and developed necessary leadership skills through this process. Maybe there is lesson for those seeking to truly empower women: start off small, and women will rise up on their own.

Photo: Reall/Mikel Fleming

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