Involving Honduran Women in Construction Projects

posted Jun 14, 2009, 6:06 PM by MA/RI State Rep NER Carson Hess   [ updated Jun 15, 2009, 7:59 PM by Regional Administrator NER Sarah Yeager ]

Involving Honduran Women in Construction Projects

By Dan Saulneir, Mentor, Northeastern University Student Chapter
Dan Saulneir  – Boston Professional Chapter

In the U.S., many of us take for granted that women can do the same jobs as men.  Other cultures have other ideas about gender issues, and responding to these ideas is an inevitable part of our role as EWB.  This article will share an experience the Northeastern University EWB had in Honduras dealing with gender issues, and how our perspective changed over time.


When we started our first project in Honduras, upgrading a small village water system, we were too busy learning the ropes to spare much time for analyzing gender roles.  However, we were pleased to notice that women held positions of power in the village, including the presidency of the village council.


Our second project in a nearby village involved miles of trench-digging to install a water transmission main, we asked if maybe the women could help out with the work.  The Water Board, which was composed entirely of men in this village, responded that women just didn’t do that sort of work.  We weren’t convinced, but we were also reluctant to push our value system onto the community.  After all, we were merely guests in the region, and were acting as water engineers, not social engineers.  In due time, the project was completed, and when we returned several months later, the village had been transformed by the availability of water. Vegetable gardens abounded, happy children were running around, and smiles were all around from the community members.  But there was one problem:  a community laundry-washing station that had been constructed in the center of the village was bone dry.  Why was this?


It turned out that the laundry station had been taken off-line during system maintenance, and had never been reconnected.  Since washing clothes is a job for women, the laundry station was not a priority for any of the men in the village, and the men were the only ones who had been trained to cut and install pipe.  So the station sat idle, and the women went back to doing laundry way down by the river, occasionally asking for the station to be reconnected, and getting nowhere.


This was clearly a case of a large segment of the population being excluded from the project process, and suffering as a result.  The fact that it was partly our fault for not pushing the gender issue harder was humbling, to say the least.  We resolved to do better.


In our third project, we decided to try telling (rather than asking) the President of the Water Board to include women in a pipe installation training session we were scheduling.  His response was a classic example of how the Hondurans are often a step ahead of us.  “Oh, that’s easy,” he said, “the village women have already organized into a work brigade, and asked what they can do to help.”  According to the EWBer who ran the pipe installation training course, the women were the better students.


What did we learn from this experience?  We did not learn that women can do anything men can do (we knew that already), but that excluding any subset of the population (intentionally or otherwise) is bound to have unintended consequences.  We need to actively seek to include all groups in the project process. The village for our next project has a religious minority, and the team has been devising plans to include this minority in project discussions from the beginning. 


Women engineering students have been a valuable part of every one of our travel teams.  Their presence has been an inspiration to young village girls, and an eye-opening education for some of the older villagers.  But showing up is only part of the job.