From stereotype to conventional: Shifting women’s role through the Women in Carpentry Project

A lady mason from Bantayan Island trains to build new homes under Oxfam's Masonry skills programme (Photo: Genevive Estacaan/Oxfam)

They were saying women can’t be carpenters. But we did not mind what they were saying because we know they are only amused to see us in this work. This is our chance to show our credibility and prove nothing is impossible for women.
Margie Vega, Leyte

“I learned that women are not just for the home. Before, women are just at home and do not know many things. You can put women anywhere. Women have the power, and they can do anything.” Elizabeth Tibay, 34 

What happens when you give a woman shovel, hammer, and carpentry skills? Homes are restored, and the family life takes on a new future. This has been the case for Elizabeth. For the past 19 days, she has been attending the carpentry and masonry training held in her community. She immediately applied her new knowledge to her own home which suffered great destruction after Haiyan. After the training, she looks forward to receiving the carpentry tools, and hopefully land a job somewhere in the island where she can make use of her carpentry and masonry skills. Elizabeth shares this experience with over 119 other women, who have engaged in the Women in Carpentry (WIC) Project of Oxfam across Typhoon Haiyan-hit areas in the Visayas.

The idea was simple—mobilise women, the out-of- school youth and members of the LGBT community to engage in the rebuilding efforts of houses and infrastructures in their own community. While learning, they were given cash as allowance (cash-for- training scheme) equal to the daily wage of a skilled worker. As they learn, they immediately apply the skills in repairing their own homes. However, carpentry and masonry has always been viewed as a man’s domain, a field of strength where, women and others considered vulnerable cannot engage in.

After the typhoon, there seemed a scarcity of men available for carpentry, as most of them were caught in between repairing houses and looking for means of livelihood and source of food. Men prioritized these over repairing their torn homes. Although there were some carpenters willing to work for salary, families cannot afford due to high cost of labour. 

Women in Carpentry (WIC) is a project of Oxfam piloted in some communities in Leyte and Tacloban, as well as in Northern Cebu. In Leyte, this was done in partnership with GREEN Mindanao, while in Northern Cebu it was made possible through Gawad Kalinga and the help of the Local Government Units of Bantayan Island.

The project is initiated under Oxfam’s Shelter and Livelihood teams as part of transitional shelter support project to fast track the repair of houses of the survivors from Typhoon Yolanda.

Piloting women in carpentry in Leyte

In the province of Eastern Leyte, the project was implemented in three highly devastated coastal Barangays of the Municipality of Tanauan namely San Roque, Bislig and Santo Niño. The three Barangays recorded a total of 2,912 households, with houses badly devastated by the storm surge of Typhoon Yolanda. The devastation left the people in more vulnerable and deprived condition as most houses were washed out because they were situated near the Bay. Along with their houses, they have also lost their livelihoods which highly depend on fishing, livestock-raising and production of fishing equipment.

The project started when Oxfam, along with local partner GREEN Mindanao (a local NGO) conducted a discussion with the community to identify the possibility of providing skills for carpentry. After community consultations, the team learned that men were not available to do the work because they were occupied with more immediate needs such as finding food and restoring their lost livelihood. This limitation led to initiate discussion if women were willing to be groomed as carpenters. A huge interest rose among women, and also realized that they can involve other groups such as the lesbians, gays and the out-of- school youth in the community.

Upon identification of the beneficiaries, a total of 100 participants were mobilised of which, 62 or more than half were women, 26 were men, eight were youth, and four from the LGBT community. They were divided into nine groups, with 11 to 12 members each. Master carpenters were also hired to help organize the work and schedule of each group, as well as provide technical coaching and mentoring in the process. At first, the community found this project rather amusing, as one of the women carpenters shared:

 “People from our community reacted upon seeing women doing carpentry work because it is considered as male domain only. At first they were surprised, so they started teasing and making fun of us. They were saying women can’t do carpentry work because it requires climbing on top to make a shed. But we did not mind what they were saying because we know they are only amused to see women in this work. This is our chance to show our credibility and prove nothing is impossible for women.” (Margie Vega, Leyte)

The participants were asked to bring their own available carpentry tools. Construction materials in the form of nails, nipa for roofing and amakan (woven bamboo slates) for walling were provided to the identified beneficiaries. All household beneficiaries were also provided with gasoline to be used for the chainsaws provided by GREEN Mindanao to produce required lumber. Each household was free to design their own house repair using the materials provided. 

All in all, the whole group was able to construct 40 houses. Total working days to finish assigned number of houses for repair by each group were 12 days. It can be noted that five groups finished repairing four houses, while four groups finished repairing five houses each in a 12-day period. All groups had 11 members except for one group in Barangay Bislig that had 12.

Per beneficiary received 260 PHP (5.80 USD) per day. All in all, a total budget of 347,600 PHP (7745 USD) was disbursed for the project. Wages of the master carpenters were taken from another fund source and were not of the cost of this specific project. However, the project with funding from Oxfam physically repaired only 40 houses. The project was an experiment and any lessons learned after careful evaluation would become basis of further actions using similar strategy.

Piloting women in carpentry in Northern Cebu

In Northern Cebu, the project was implemented in four municipalities namely Santa Fe, Madridejos and Bantayan Proper and Daanbantayan. It has given training to 171 participants of which, around 60 were women skilled workers (25 in Santa Fe, 18 in Madridejos, 15 from Bantayan Proper and two in Daanbantayan).                                                                                 

The project was implemented in Bantayan and Madridejos through the partnership of Gawad Kalinga (GK)—a local non-government organization, in which the main goal was to build permanent shelters for Haiyan survivors. GK provided for the materials and location of work, while Oxfam’s counterpart was to provide labour. The training lasted for 25 days, and each day, the workers earn 282 PHP (6.28 USD) as cash-for-training.  

On the other hand, the project was implemented in Santa Fe through the help of the municipal government. The LGU provided the materials and the location of work as well as the technical mentors coming from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Philippines) or TESDA. The work lasted for a total of 25 days. After the training, each participant receives a TESDA accreditation with National Certificate 2 (license), a proof that they are official skilled workers. Upon completion, they also receive a set of carpentry tools which includehammer, hack saw, chisel, label, shovel, pick-mattock, crowbar and palette among others.

To help the participants find a job, Oxfam sent the profile of the skilled workers to other INGOs. The local government unit of Santa Fe is also exploring the possibility of making these skilled workers a priority when they hire people for construction in the municipality. To date, four units of the model houses were constructed in the nursery (practice area) has and are ready for occupancy. Beneficiaries for these constructed houses will be determined by the LGU of Santa Fe.

Aside from the workers, trainees were also given other tasks such as Venus Cabrera. Venus serves as the training monitor and takes note of the trainees’ attendance and concerns. She notes that the training has been very beneficial to her: 

 “Because of this, we did not need to hire someone to do masonry and, on my own, I can repair our home. I am also thinking of applying. When my husband learned about it, he was laughing at me. He was doubtful if I can handle it. I said ‘That is the reason why we have the training. Do you think there are things men can do that women can’t? Women can do it’. The men who also train here laughed at us. I would tell them that women can also work like they do especially during these times. The work is not too hard, as long as we are helping each other. This is a big help to us. I use the money that I earn here to buy food for my children and daily supplies for ourhouse. ” (Venus Cabrera, woman carpenter,Bantayan Cebu)

Life changing impacts                                                            

Transforming dominant culture: It is a transformation in households, as well as in the community level, where the dominant culture perceives women in a care giving role within the family sphere only. This initiative is a good start in reshaping people’s mindset that women can perform and contribute to any work in a given enabling environment.

Gaining respect and confidence among women: One woman shared that, after the typhoon, she thought it was the end of the world. She has lost everything, even her husband. But after joining this work, she felt empowered and realized that she didn’t need to depend on anyone any more. Now she knows what to do if she will face another disaster in the future. Women received honour and respect from other family members for their carpentry role.

  • Shifting roles: Some partner/husbands of women beneficiaries joined in cooking, taking care of  children while their wives were doing carpentry work. This helped them understand the value of household work. Some women shared that their husband came to realise the pressure, responsibility, hard work and the time women contribute during cooking and other household chores. The carpentry work created this scope for their husband’s realisations.
  • Tapping women for leadership: Some women are now thinking of grooming a Master Carpenter as there is no women in their locality as master carpenter.
  • Breaking societal stigma: This initiative breaks the societal stigma that women can’t do the hard work of men, creating positive impact on other women who are now willing to do the same.
  • Influencing Partners: This initiative allows GREEN Mindanao and other partners to think more on how to work on this in their future shelter project, and how to operate with a gender lens.
  • Changing the Shelter Approach: The conventional shelter approach considers women as a beneficiary to get access to shelter service only. However, this project is a breakthrough for Oxfam, as it underlined the importance of the Gender dimension in post-disaster construction/rehabilitation work.

Some Lessons Learnt

  • Safety measures should be considered, and there is a need to provide safety tools such as gloves to protect from accidental cuts, provision of first aid tools plus knowledge and skills to protect themselves from possible accidents.
  • In Leyte, the WIC did not receive basic tools to use (e.g. hammer, saw, etc.) Providing these tools could have increased efficiency (as women sometimes stop working because the neighbour who owns tools need to take them back). These tools are productive assets which they can continue to use while they are learning carpentry skills.
  • WIC provided an excellent opportunity for women to acquire technical skills and prove their capacity as carpenters. However, there were no interventions to help them cope with this new role without compromising their other care role in the household. For many women beneficiaries, carpentry work is additional to all the other work which leads to multiple burdens. The norm for most of them to do all the care work at home. Software interventions could include: (a) care work analysis for the family (household) members to understand and appreciate the different roles (b) negotiation skills among women so that they can negotiate with husbands and other family members to share and even reverse roles without undue consequences (c) protective mechanisms in case negotiations failed and to end in violence
  • This is a deliberate and context specific intervention which could lead for more transformative change. Hence, this is one sided transformation from women’s side. Still women need to care about their multiple role and burden. What the women experienced did not include physical violence as forms of resistance from men but definitely has an impact to psychological/emotional dimensions. Plus again the fact that some husbands still pressures the wives to carry all the burden of care work. Hence team members need to think about development of software intervention like how to engage the husband and the men in the community to recognise care work and influence them to participate to make balance responsibility within home to free women for productive work.
  • A number of women expressed the interest to pursue carpentry as their profession. The skills they have so far (which is expected due to the short project duration) enabled them to serve as assistant carpenters—construction labourer-- which is low paying. To sustain this, they should continue learning the skills and even better if they reached the level of getting certification by Government Authority. Linking them to government authority is a good start.
  • The women could increase their leverage (show of force) if organized. Though grouped together during the construction, they were not really organized to serve transformational purpose. The organizing of women is a vehicle to hone them as leaders, increase their confidence, improve social capital and serve as protective support in dealing with resistance and violence. Other than being a social and political group, if organized they could leverage as an economic entity with a market brand of "women carpenter". The bill board message placed outside their finished products: BUILT BY WOMEN is a powerful political message as well as market brand.
  • This WIC is indeed a good practice and able to showcase how the shelter team able to embed gender in their work. This initiative should be widely disseminated within and even outside Haiyan team to learn from it, to increase appreciation on the value of gender mainstreaming (it’s not additional work, it’s doing the work better!) and collecting evidences on the application of the gender minimum standards.




Article and photos by: Farhana Hafiz/Oxfam
With additional content and photos by: Genevive Estacaan/Oxfam