The participation of women in the construction of a popular habitat: generating urban development in Sol de Libertad

Without a doubt, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities, with Latin America being the most urbanized region. Mainly in Latin America, the population produces self-made housing, which emerges in the urban landscape of the main cities, built on the basis of struggle and commitment of the most impoverished sectors, to make a space in the city and thereby seek better life opportunities.

In this short article, I will highlight the role that women have played in the construction of housing and habitat, based on the collective actions undertaken in a neighborhood of informal origin in the city of Managua, Nicaragua. This case shows us that the role of women has been decisive in the construction of their neighborhoods and has disrupted gender roles through various collective actions and organizational practices promoted, which has contributed to a social transformation.

The residents of the Sol de Libertad neighborhood, like many others, have had the courage to leave everything behind and forge a future in the city. They, like many others that live in these types of spaces, build their houses without the support and without services, they do them as best as they can and wherever they can, challenging urban planning.

It is essential to understand the organizational practices, collective actions, and citizenship exercised by the population living in informal settlements to improve their insertion in the city and access to urban services from a gender perspective. The socially assigned gender roles have been disrupted by the organizational practices of the women leaders of the Sol de Libertad neighborhood of the city of Managua.

The narrative of the leading women who obtained, first, urban land and then housing, shows that it is the most impoverished population, the one who commands and leads processes of habitat construction. In the case of Sol de Libertad, the history of the emergence and consolidation of the neighborhood reveals the role that women have played in this process.

Paula Soto, (2018) states that “women present themselves as actors, (…) they give collective responses in the processes of self-construction of housing and in the improvement of infrastructure” (p.23)

Although there are studies that characterize these settlements as sites of low political activity, we find that the mobilization and management, mainly of women, in the production of their neighborhoods, generate important participation processes that transcend the sphere of private space, placing them in the public space.

The women who forged the birth of the Sol de Libertad neighborhood.

In the Sol de Libertad neighborhood, women developed organizational strategies and practices to take control of the land of what is now their neighborhood. Quickly, and favored in the darkness of night, they placed the first posts of what would later become the first houses. They devised strategies to circumvent police security, they organized, and while some went to the municipal districts, others stayed caring for and defending the conquered territory.

While securing the territory, the next task was to access drinking water. To solve this shared need, they carried out a repertoire of collective actions and organized processes. Doña Elsy tells me that she had to get up at two in the morning to get water from the annex to Villa Libertad (neighborhood next to the land taken). Equipped with some buckets, they collected the water to take to their precarious homes. She took advantage of the task of collecting water to take a short bath and wash her clothes, always limiting water use and meeting her needs with what she managed to get. She then had to walk up the extremely stony and steep path to bring the water to her precarious home.

When talking with Mrs. Elsy, Karla, Mrs. Eva, and Maritza, all of the founders of Sol de Libertad, they affirmed that they came to populate the neighborhood despite the adverse conditions of the land, ignoring the danger represented by a natural channel that divides the neighborhood into two and increases in width and depth every year, causing a high risk for the population. They all agree that “it was the only opportunity to get a piece of land to live on.”

“We were afraid that they would come to evict us, we thought that we could not be left without a house, living on the street. I was afraid that my house would be demolished with all the effort we had made. I was worried about seeing all my sacrifice on the ground.” (Cristina)

Sol de Libertad, like other neighborhoods self-produced by the people, is on the other side of the so-called formal city. They constitute territories of difference and inequality marked by the poverty of their ecosystem. Cravino, (2016) characterizes them as “city fragments without city status”. For women like “the makers of Sol de Libertad”, land grabbing was the only option to have a home.

According to the stories of the women leaders and founders of the neighborhood, access to drinking water and then electricity meant a series of efforts, struggles, and resistance that took a period of between six to eight years. In addition, to assuming the costs of materials and labor, which for the poorest populations is extremely more expensive, and of very low quality.

In the struggle to have access to drinking water, Doña Elsy relates: “we, women also work a lot. We ourselves dug to have drinking water ”. Dona Eva adds, “We triumphed with water. It is difficult for the neighborhood. We did the same with the electricity at the beginning, we put it on ”.

Learning from the Organization

The leaders and founders of Sol de Libertad have learned that organizing and working to achieve better conditions in the neighborhood has given them growth as women who distance themselves from traditional roles. The regularization of the land, the management of public services, the preparation of requests for property titles have had results. At the same time, they have taken advantage of non-governmental organizations to access small and flexible loans to improve their homes and to additionally manage projects with local agencies aimed at reducing the difficult environmental conditions that the neighborhood experiences. They have worked to improve their leadership, training, and strengthening their role, as a result, they have revised their needs and turned them into demands and rights.

The organization of these women and their role in improving their habitat, articulated with the neighborhood social fabric, dominate the daily life of their neighborhoods. They were structured in such a way, they were able to meet individual but also collective needs and gaining leadership spaces in the neighborhood organization. The difficult conditions in which they inhabit the city are seen by the leaders as the potential for the promotion of their organization and as a way to realize their utopias and dreams.

The women leaders of Sol de Libertad have generated bonds of trust that unite them with the population that lives in the neighborhoods. Despite the new leaderships imposed in the neighborhoods by the ruling party, the historical leaders represent a very present and influential role. They have built their leadership over more than 25 years. They are not temporary leaders in attendance to a project or a government. Their leadership is rooted in direct contact with the wide network they have woven throughout their lives. They are closer to promoting community organizational practices, solidarity, and equality.

For them, the task of organizing, mobilizing, and management of the social demand of the inhabitants is a fundamental part of their lives. Because of this, the new neighborhood leadership imposed does not manage to mobilize or make a dent in the leadership of women who, like Elsy, Eva, Maritza, and Karla, have forged themselves in the struggle to conquer space in the city and inhabit Sol de Libertad.

Undoubtedly, these women have played a determining role in the construction of their neighborhoods. Their knowledge of the territory and its people is essential, knowledge of the diversity of inequalities in the neighborhood, in order to work together with the population and hand in hand with its new leaders. Placing the different territorial scales of urban injustices at the center for the construction of a sustainable, democratic, and sustainable urban agenda.

Cravino, María Cristina (2016). “Desigualdad urbana, inseguridad y vida cotidiana en asentamientos informales del Area Metropolitana de Buenos Aires”, Etnografías Contemporáneas 2 (3), pp.56-83.
Soto Villagrán, Paula (2018). Hacia la construcción de unas geografías de género de la ciudad. Formas plurales de habitar y significar los espacios urbanos en Latinoamérica. Perspectivas Geográgicas Vol.23 No2. Recuperado de:

Linguistic Equality, a Precondition for Economic and Political Equity

In May of 2016, Dr. Michel DeGraff, responded to Danielle Allen’s, Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Professor of Government and Education, essay on What is Education For? He focused on linguistic equality as a precondition for political and economical equity. His response was originally posted on the Boston Review.

Danielle Allen’s essay provides added inspiration for my efforts to help solve an education-and-equality challenge in Haiti, a country with one of the highest rates of inequality. As director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative and a founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy, my work in Haiti has led me to more deeply understand linguistic equality as a precondition for the economic and political equity that Allen seeks.

The creation and dissemination of knowledge, especially STEM knowledge, in local vernaculars can advance both economic and political equality. Indeed, home vernaculars are necessary for universal access to high-quality education. Unless they are utilized in education, there are many children who will never grow to participate in the political system, ensuring the perpetuation of a cycle in which the poorest are blocked from shaping the distribution of social, economic, and political capital. The humanities, together with STEM disciplines, can help break down this barrier, as we are doing in Haiti through the MIT-Haiti Initiative.

For centuries now, the Haitian state has failed the vast majority of Haitians on both the economic and political fronts. Language is at the heart of the problem. In spite of the Haitian Constitution’s recognition of both Kreyòl and French as official languages—and its stated view that Kreyòl is “the one language that binds all Haitians together”—the primary language for instruction and examination in Haiti remains French. Yet at least 95 percent of Haitians speak only Kreyòl. How does this work? The answer is, it doesn’t.

The use of French in schools systematically privileges children of French-speaking families, and it penalizes those who come from communities in which only Kreyòl is spoken. The system thus offers no possibility for equal economic opportunity. Nor does it deliver what Allen calls participatory readiness: the state, the schools, and many segments of civil society convey to children the unambiguous message that they can become fully active “citizens” only if they can speak fluent French—an alienating and impossible task for most Haitian children, especially given their lack of opportunity for immersion in French-speaking contexts and the dearth of competent teachers.

Haitian leaders and intellectuals, including well-meaning educators, often cite two sorts of pseudoscientific arguments for maintaining French as the sole or primary medium of instruction. First, they say that children’s interests are best served through French instruction because Kreyòl, as a “young” and “still emerging” language, cannot express complex concepts in science, mathematics, philosophy, etc. Second, they claim that children who speak Kreyòl only will be isolated in a linguistic ghetto.

Among many rebuttals to these claims, my own work argues for the status of Kreyòl as a full-fledged language that has the capacity to express complex concepts, on a par with any other language. Moreover, warnings about the creation of a linguistic ghetto ignore the possibility that Kreyòl-speaking children who can build solid foundations for literacy, numeracy, and logic in their native language are on a stronger footing to learn second languages like French, English, and Spanish, alongside acquiring important knowledge in the humanities and STEM.

Finland’s superior school system, in which Finnish is used as the primary language of instruction, provides a robust refutation to the myth that local languages necessarily enclose their speakers in linguistic ghettos. Finnish, which has only 5.5 million speakers, is about twice as “local” as Kreyòl, which has more than 10 million speakers, many of them spread around the world. As anthropologist Suze Mathieu points out, there are more Kreyòl speakers in the Americas than there are French speakers—in effect making Kreyòl more of an “international” language than French, so far as the Americas are concerned.

The persistence of French as the primary language of instruction and of formal discourse in Haiti must then be viewed as an instrument of linguistic apartheid, to be analyzed from a Fanonian perspective: French is enlisted as both a marker of social and political domination and a tool for the perpetuation of this domination.

The MIT-Haiti Initiative produces digital learning tools and other educational resources in Kreyòl for active learning at advanced levels of STEM. We are already finding that teachers teach better and students learn better when the medium of instruction is Kreyòl. Our data also suggest that children become more proficient readers and writers and better learners when they learn to read in their native language.

While Allen’s argument prioritizes liberal arts over STEM as a path toward distributive justice via participative citizenship, we have seen how the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge in Kreyòl can help usher in both economic and political equality in Haiti. In one post-workshop survey for the MIT-Haiti Initiative, a physics teacher recounted how the use of active-learning tools in Kreyòl would ease students into class participation with great excitement, provoking them to ask questions and enter into debates in ways they characteristically would not when the instruction was conducted in French. In fact, the teacher admitted that when the discussions became too lively, he would silence the students by switching back to French.

Similar oppression affects speakers of vernacular dialects in the United States as well, such as speakers of African American Vernacular English. It goes so far as to affect court rulings, as in the Trayvon Martin case against George Zimmerman: the prosecution’s star witness, Rachel Jeantel, was perceived to be an unreliable witness because she spoke African American Vernacular English, rendering her effectively voiceless. Linguistic inequality thus has graver consequences than merely hobbling the interpersonal skills that enhance civic participation. Even Justice Clarence Thomas has attributed his silence on the Supreme Court to having grown up as a speaker of the Gullah variety of English.

Local languages are indispensable for participatory readiness on a global scale. But the activism needed to promote them often requires academic training that is inaccessible to the communities of their speakers. In the MIT-Haiti Initiative, we see how Kreyòl-based classroom tools and methods have the potential to shift educational outcomes toward both distributive and political equity. The initiative may well suggest that a tight collaboration between humanists, educators, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers is a winning option for all concerned. Such analysis doubles as a plea for a retooling of linguistics. This retooling would be part of the general “revision of the liberal arts curriculum” that Allen advocates. Alongside its contributions to both science and social justice, linguistics, like education and other disciplines in the humanities, has too often been used as a tool for intellectual and political domination. Yet linguistics is critical, alongside education and STEM, for tackling global challenges, especially in promoting participatory readiness and distributive justice in disenfranchised communities that speak local languages—in Haiti and beyond. As Marx said, “the task is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.”

A year after the launch of “La Escuela en la Radio”

It has been almost a year since the Fe y Alegría Movement in Venezuela implemented a new strategy for the continued support of distance education of Preschool and Primary students in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the course of the past 12 months, Fe y Alegría has been able to accompany children, who, for the most part, do not have access to the necessary technological platforms for distance learning such as, PCs, laptops, tablets, telephones, connection to the internet, TV, etc.

This has been possible due to the joint effort and collaboration between the Schools Program and Fe y Alegría Radio, who came together to guarantee the continuity, permanence, and education of Venezuela’s most vulnerable students. Teaching and learning strategies through radio formats, allow educators to deliver content in a fun and interactive way that contributes to the development of student’s fundamental skills, such as; language and communication, logical-mathematical processes, and values.

Maura Montes, the mother of two girls in second and third grade at the Fe y Alegría Jesús Soto School in Ciudad Guayana, says that as a result of the radio education initiative implemented by Fe y Alegría to accompany children and parents in the middle of quarantine, family coexistence at home has been strengthened.

“It has been beneficial in the sense of family coexistence. It has helped us adapt and get involved in the education of children,” she said.

In times like this, in which parents have had to be teachers at home, and the uncertainty of a pandemic reigns outside, another great challenge of distance education is to ensure emotional well-being. Fe y Alegría has also focused on providing families with tools for coexisting and healthy handling of emotions in the midst of confinement.

During the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year, Fe y Alegría radio coverage increased to reach more beneficiaries through the launch of 12 micro-programs and the broadcast of 90 programs. During the development of these, 117 boys and 122 girls participated, along with 239 adults, mostly women. An estimated audience of 8,454,515 people was reached.

La Escuela en la Radio is broadcasted by Radio Fe y Alegría stations from Monday to Friday from 9 to 10 in the morning and is broadcast from 3 to 4 in the afternoon.