Representation of women in the urban field: "Women can be the pioneers of change"

Bird view of Chennai, India
Lecturer and senior expert

In the week of International Women's Day, IHS brings the focus on women's role in the urban field and on showcasing the work of IHS staff members involved in gender-related projects. Meet Dr Maartje van Eeerd, senior specialist in Housing & Social Development and assistant professor in the Urban Housing, Equity & Social Justice Master track. Maartje participates in several projects in Chennai, India, dealing with the overall theme of displacement and resettlement. 

This week we are talking about women. Can you tell us more about the gender-related topics you work on in India? 

The team of IHS, including my colleague from the Urban Socio- Spatial Development team, Dr Alonso Ayala and me, and our partners from Anna University, Dr Sunitha DonBosco and Dr Velayutham Chandrasekaran and their students, started with a documentary film project, “We Too Urban Women”. The idea of the project was to digitally record the stories of resettled poor communities in Perumbakkam, particularly from a gender perspective.

"The documentary with the participation of women from Perumbakkam will be used as teaching material for students in universities and inform various stakeholders across the globe."

In 2019, in collaboration with the partners from the Media Department of Anna University, IHS started an action research project called Communication for Development (C4D): Interventions in Urban Resettlement to Improve Livelihood Outcomes for Poor Women. This research on the digital inclusiveness of resettled women and their families also involves research from PhD students and Master students from Anna University and IHS. 

What was your motivation to approach this topic? 

Years ago, I lived in Chennai when I conducted my PhD research on grassroots initiatives in a resettlement site. Since then, I have been going back regularly, conducting research, and organizing training in the field of resettlement and housing rights.

"Gender has always been my specific interest. Women are even worse affected than men when being resettled. They lose access to livelihoods, their social networks are affected, their children's education is affected, and they become even more marginalized."

On the other hand, women often show enormous resilience in dealing with all the challenges. The production of a documentary showing the challenges and resilience of resettled women was a long desire of mine because of the lack of quality film material that can be used for teaching purposes. When I met the perfect partners from the Media Department of Anna University, we developed a proposal and acquired funding to realize this. The C4D action research project focuses on housing rights that are not respected, and livelihoods enormously affected by resettlement.

"The research zooms into access to information and digital inclusiveness for women prior to displacement and after resettlement. Access to information is an enormous problem for many urban poor, particularly when resettled and when their social networks get uprooted."

That is why the project focuses on access to information, possibly through an app. It intends to inform affected communities about their housing rights, provide access to information on livelihood opportunities in and near the new settlement, social support and networks for resettled women their families. Linked to that, we have also acquired funding for a physical information centre on-site in one of the resettlement sites. PhD and Master student research from IHS and Anna University are related to all these initiatives. 

The projects take place in India. How does the topic relate to the country?

In many Asian cities, you see a trend where poor communities are displaced from inner-city slums to enormous resettlement sites at the outskirts of the cities. Sometimes these sites are located as far as 30 kilometres from where they were originally situtated. This is also happening in many cities in India. The city of Chennai is witnessing large-scale development-induced resettlement. In this city alone, due to a river restoration project, 60,000 families or roughly 200,000 people who live in so-called "objectionable areas"low lying flood-prone areas of the city- were earmarked for eviction, of whom many have already been relocated. Our project focuses specifically on one of these resettlement sites called Perumbakkam. This is a very large resettlement site at the outskirts of Chennai with a population of 14,000 families, around 60,000 people, but it will, when finalized, in total, rehouse 100,000 people.

What were the main issues related to gender? 

The kind of social, cultural, and occupational uprooting due to displacement and resettlement generally has a more profound effect on women than men (Bajpai and Gautam, 2018). Women tend to experience shrinking livelihood opportunities after resettlement. They face greater difficulties in their new environments and need to build a new everyday routine from scratch (Sikka and Mathur, 2018; Smyth, Steyn, Esteves et al., 2015). Bajpai and Gautam (2018) also point out that most women lose their steady income after resettlement. From the social perspective, resettlement disrupts social networks and family ties, resulting in the shrinking of a familiar space that women are used to and gain enjoyment from.

"However, despite the severe impact that resettlement can have, women can endure the shocks, and they are also able to be the pioneers of change. Specifically, building on women’s livelihoods helps rescue them from harsh impoverishment risks, and it empowers them to be agents of change in their households and communities."

What solutions do you suggest, and what future steps would help overcome this issue?

In terms of displacement and resettlement, communities’ housing rights need to be respected. They should be involved in the process and design of housing solutions to cater to their housing needs and incorporate access to livelihoods. It is also crucial to create awareness of the negative consequences, possible measures to prevent them, and analyse and share information on better practices.  

Last but not least, how does it feel to be a woman working in the urban development field from your perspective?

There is still a lot of gender inequality at universities. Although measures are being taken to address gender inequality, you still have an unequal distribution of men and women in the higher positions, which also applies to Erasmus University. Besides, women are paid less in similar positions. This is unacceptable and needs to change. Measures are taken to address, but the change is too slow in my perspective. However, it does not prevent me from doing what I feel is important, and I enjoy my work. I also see many advantages of being a woman in this sector.

"I try to be an inspiration to my students. I am not sure whether that has to do with the fact that I am a woman, but I have always felt the need for my work to focus on real-life poverty and gender inequality problems. This is also what I hope I have taught my daughters, to see the gender inequality and injustice in the world, and one way or the other to make a change."

Photo by David Schelkshorn

Photo by David Schelkshorn

Photo by David Schelkshorn

Photo by David Schelkshorn

Related items

Compare @count study programme

  • @title

    • Duration: @duration
Compare study programmes