InsuResilience in conversation with: Bijal Brahmbhatt, Director of the Mahila Housing SEWA Trust

The Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) won the Popular Choice award of the Absorbing Climate Impacts Contest that sought innovative ideas on how to link climate risk insurance with other forms of social protection. The proposal by MTH seeks to tap from women’s habit of saving to manage climate-induced risks through an innovate chit fund cum microinsurance scheme. The InsuResilience Secretariat spoke with Bijal Brahmbhatt, Director of MHT about their proposal. 


How did the innovative idea of your proposal evolve?

Climate change creates additional challenges for slum inhabitants. Poor communities living in informal settlements are highly vulnerable and particularly susceptible to extreme heat, floods and water logging. Building resilience of urban poor is both a daunting and a compelling challenge. MHT took up the challenge of building resilience in 100 slums across seven cities in South Asia – under the Global Resilience Partnership (GRP) in the year 2015. It addressed the critical partnership gap between technical experts, local governments and low-income communities to undertake participatory risk assessments and design joint technical solutions. This engagement gave hands-on experience of developing a model for building the resilience of urban poor, making it a community-wide, women-led process. It deployed strategies that simultaneously built the capacities of experts, governments and the women leaders from slums. Women were enabled to better understand climate change, undertake vulnerability assessment and develop risk management plans for their household and their community.

However, experience told that the resilience model needed to be strengthened by adding financial tools. During a brainstorming we asked ourselves what women from slums do to overcome emergency or contingency. We knew women borrowed cash and services. We contacted a few women leaders from a couple of slums in Ahmedabad (in the state of Gujarat, India). All of them said they organized themselves in small communities and ran chit funds (a rotating savings and credits system that allows to save and borrow money simultaneously). There was a strong belief in savings and they depended on each other to maximize their strength. They understood chit funds very well. That is when the idea emerged to bundle savings with micro-insurance. We knew women can operate an index-based micro insurance if clubbed with the chit fund instrument.

What advantages do you see in combining climate risk insurance with other forms of social protection?

In the experience of MHT, women’s productivity and economic empowerment are inextricably linked to access to basic social protection, i.e. health care, child care, insurance e.g. for income loss, pension, and housing with basic water and sanitation. For example, illness is a leading source of indebtedness and loan defaults, and childcare is a key barrier to women’s entry into the labour force. Similarly, time spent on collecting water comprises a significant portion of women workers’ productive hours. In MHT’s experience, we have seen that these women are so poor and vulnerable that, unless their life cycle needs (i.e. needs of childcare, health, education, marriage, old age care) are taken care of for three generations, it is difficult to escape poverty. A single extreme (weather) event suffices to pull them into the vicious spiral of poverty. Climate risk insurance, combined with other forms of social protection, allows them to better manage climate-related risks and ensures the ability of communities to survive, adapt and progress in times of stress.

What challenges do you see in implementing your project proposal?

Our contest proposal envisions to tap from women’s savings habit to contribute towards development of index-based insurance for slow onset extreme weather events like heat stress and flooding. While slum women in India are already knowledgeable in the area of life and accident insurance, there exists a lack of knowledge and willingness to save money for insurance against slow-onset effects of climate impacts because these impacts are long-term and rather abstract.

Since 2015, MHT has been engaged in educating slum women about potential risks related to climate change. Some of these women have become climate saathis (Climate friends), who will lead the implementation of the project proposal.

Our contest proposal envisions the establishment of a fund for index-based insurance. Money for this fund shall not only come from the slum women themselves but also from urban local public entities and corporates. This is going to be a challenge, but we hope that our experience of more than 25 years in implementing pro-poor habitat programmes in partnership with the Government and the private sector will help us to overcome this challenge.

Do you think your project proposal is applicable to other regions or countries?

We developed our model for building climate resilience of women in Ahmedabad, where we have our headquarter, and replicated it in five other states in India. We also successfully transferred the model to Nepal and Bangladesh. In total, MHT has been active in building resilience in more than 100 slums across seven different cities in South Asia: Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Bhopal, Ranchi, Bhubaneshwar (India), Kathmandu (Nepal) and Dhaka (Bangladesh). We believe that our contest proposal can definitely be applied to other regions in South Asia where the effects of extreme climate-related events are already noticeable and where there is an informal culture of saving among women in place.


Background on the Mahila Housing Sewa Trust

Eighty percent of India’s workforce are in the informal sector. Poor women constitute 90-92% of the sector. These women use their house as their work place and warehouse. Therefore, housing is not only a form of social security but also important to ensure the economic productivity of these women. MHT works with poor women from urban slums and in rural areas on habitat issues to improve housing and basic services like drinking water, toilets, drainage, street lights and the overall living environment; empowering women to access basic services, home finance, legal advice, technical assistance and influence housing and infrastructure-related urban and rural development policies and programmes. The cornerstones of MHT’s work are collectivising and empowering women to engage with local governments and the private sector to ensure that they invest in their habitats and thus improve the quality of their life.

More information on the work of MTH here

More information on the proposal handed in by MTH here


This interview was conducted by the InsuResilience Secretariat