Wider connections

Women Building – A Double Whammy of Empowerment


Although we are focused on improving careers in science, we are acutely aware of the desperate situations faced by women in other parts of the world. This is a piece written by Lisa Houston, daughter of one of the lab managers in the IGMM. Lisa has been living and working in a refugee camp in Thailand on the Burmese border since she left university. She recently raised funds through crowd-sourcing to run building workshops for women, and here she writes about her experiences with these workshops



The First Workshop

In May 2013, friends from two organizations organized the first women’s building workshop in Thailand (and possibly in the region). In 9 days, 25 women and 9 kids from 11 countries in Asia and around the world, built an adobe brick with thatch roof bungalow for International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP). The main teacher, Peggy Reents, is a co-founder of Pun Pun Centre for Sustainable development. IWP is a feminist organization working with grassroots activists on sustainable strategies for social change. Pun Pun is a farm, natural building, seed saving and organic farming training centre. IWP and Pun Pun are a perfect match for women’s building courses, bringing together feminism and natural building, as well as a belief that work should always integrate the building of community.

The experience was exhilarating for everyone involved, and participants initiated three more women’s building workshops in 2014. The first of these brought together 20 Thai and international women to build accommodation for a Thai NGO working with university students from rural ethnic areas in Sankampheng, Thailand. That workshop was followed by a smaller workshop just outside Rangoon, Burma, as the hot season moved into the monsoon, where women from a Burmese women’s organisation built a small kids play centre, together with some international volunteers.


The Fourth Building Workshop

We have just returned from the site of the fourth women’s building project where we worked with 25 Karen women to prepare the bricks, design the building and ready the ground for our workshop in December with the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) to build a traning centre.  We are more inspired than ever. The site is located in a small rural village in Burma on the banks of the Salween river, the border between Thailand and Burma.

Our plan had been to explain the techniques of brick-making and leave them to make bricks over the coming weeks; What an underestimation of these amazing women! On the first day, they banged out 300 bricks, which we thought was quite an achievement. On the second day the group made 700 which was incredible, and on the third day, the final 400 needed to build the whole centre. We had 1400 bricks in just three days!

What made the process so smooth and efficient was their organizing abilities. Usually as facilitators of this process we have to coax participants into organising work teams, but this group self-organized effortlessly. There were a few challenges, including finding the space to lay out all these bricks, sufficient water, making the form for the bricks, and keeping goats, chickens and pigs from stomping on the bricks, but KWO women have keen problem solving skills and solutions were quickly sorted out.

The brick-making workshop took place in a village like all their homes, a rural village where most people live only off of what they raise, grow or forage, with just the most basic tools and simplest water and cooking systems. People build their homes, so getting their heads around that was really no problem! It is a village made up mainly of people displaced by the decades long war in Karen State, something which has affected the lives of all the women involved.

The three days was filled with hilarity, jokes, teasing and fun! There were small groups of brave men who would come and assist for a few hours each day (some soldiers and some from the local teacher training college). They got bossed, chided and teased endlessly as they added their efforts to one of the speediest brick making workshops ever.

We came away inspired and convinced that they had more to teach us than we have to offer – including their amazing ability to stay clean throughout a very muddy process!


Why Women Building?

Peggy Reents has been building with adobe for the last 12 years in Thailand, as well as in her home of Colorado, USA.  During her time in Thailand she has led mixed gender workshops at Pun Pun and sometimes felt frustrated at the way gender roles were played out in the workshops. She noticed that men would tend to take over certain technical or physical tasks for women, or when the work involved being at higher heights.  There appeared to be unspoken assumptions, no matter what culture she was working with, about what women were and were not capable of doing.

“Since building is predominantly a male field, especially in South East Asia, men sometimes unconsciously take on the role of leader when building with women, when actually most of the time both genders have the same level of experience.  What I found was that what women wanted, instead of men taking over, was the space to learn the techniques in their own way.  For this reason, we felt it was important to create a building space for women to learn from other women and create a space that felt supportive for learning and growth.”

Specifically in South East Asia, there are taboos for women getting up on roofs, since women should not be higher than men. (Even women’s sarongs and underwear should be hung out to dry at a height lower than men’s). And increasingly, only the very poorest of women (in Thailand this would be migrant women from Burma) are seen on building sites; ideas of class status also keep women away from building.  The women’s building workshop seemed the perfect activity to bust through some of these myths, meet other women builders and inspire more women towards self-reliance and sustainable building techniques.

Building a whole building from scratch, including making the bricks, is an empowering experience for anyone. For those of us who were brought up to believe that building a house requires a crew of people with years of training and skills in architecture, engineering, carpentry and construction, as well as expensive materials and unaffordable amounts of money, this is especially so. For earth building, the main materials are mud, mud and more mud plus rice husks and rice straw, all easily accessible, free or cheap by-products from nearby farms, with the cost of the roof, windows and doors varying depending on your choice of material (leaf thatch being the most affordable but least long-lasting). When women get together and build a whole house it feels like a double whammy of empowerment, learning that you have the strength and skills to do it yourself and that you need not rely on men to do it.

Throughout the building workshops there are always daily bouts of awe at what we are able to achieve. With a large group of women the walls go up fast and within 2-3 days, everyone can see a house taking shape. Even when muscles are aching, the tremendous satisfaction at seeing the results of the day’s work keeps everyone inspired to get to the end.  At Pun Pun Centre for Self -Reliance, we regularly run mixed gender self-sufficiency workshops, where participants learn to build their own homes, grow their own food, take care of their own health, but as one participant pointed out: “This is not about self-sufficiency, but about community sufficiency”, which summarises how all of us feel after building a house together – that our power comes from the communities we create in building homes together.


Karen Women’s Organisation

The fourth workshop has been organized together with the Karen Women’s Organisation, one of the most impressive women’s organisations in the region.  For over 40 years this women’s organisation has been working to improve the lives of Karen refugees and internally displaced people affected by the civil war in Karen State. They currently have a membership of 49,000 Karen women, and 1500 staff. Since their formation when the organisation was mainly focused on social welfare, they have expanded to increase awareness of women’s rights and to promote women’s participation in community decision making and political processes. Their work has included the documentation of violence against women by the military during the conflict. With the ongoing political changes and much discussed peace processes in Burma, they have recently been doing a huge amount of work to raise awareness of the community needs – in particular the needs and concerns of women in regards to the peace process at the national level.

Given their already massive workload, it seemed amazing that they wanted to also organise this building workshop. When we asked them why, they sent us an impressive list of reasons and explained that they will use the workshop as a kind of retreat from their busy schedules.  Their list highlighted the fact that the building workshop will create opportunities for the staff “to work together, have fun, laugh, work hard and build up team spirit. Most of the project management work that staff is doing, is not very physical work and it is difficult to see the tangible results of their work even though the staff work so hard. Building this training centre will challenge the women physical and at the same time they will see the immediate result of their hard work and teamwork, which will help them feel empowered.”  We heartily agree, and the pride and empowerment of seeing the tangible results of hard work has been a trademark in each workshop.

KWO appreciate that the building will be environmentally friendly, and since it is a different building technique to what villagers are used to, it will create opportunties to raise awareness in the community about other sustainable and affordable building options.

Our hope is that women from all these workshops will go on to build their own homes, meeting halls, garden sheds and training centres and that the communities of women who know how it feels to build will stay connected, help each other with projects, build a network of women builders and continue to show everyone that, in the words of KWO, “women can do anything”.