• Sunday, December 21, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    Who Says Women Don’t Build

    Women working on construction site in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet

    Women working on construction site in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet

    By Fabiana Frayssinet

    RIO DE JANEIRO: It looks like any other construction site: wheelbarrows full of bricks, boards and steel bars trundling back and forth to a soundtrack of hammers, saws and drills. But there is a difference: some of the construction workers underneath the hard hats are women.

    The women – seven of the 90 workers – are a new face of the labour market in Brazil. They have worked hard to reach the top of the scaffolding on this eight-floor building coming up in Rio de Janeiro.

    “They told me I wouldn’t hack it as a construction worker, but here I am,” says 23-year-old Daiana Aguiar, married mother of one. She adds that many people she knows doubt that “I really plaster or lay bricks.”

    Aguiar has no nostalgia for her old job as a cashier in a supermarket. “I only had one day off a week. On a construction site you earn a lot more, and you have the weekend off. And now I have a car, I’m studying, and I’m building at my house too.”

    She and her female co-workers can thank the Mão na Massa (Hands On) Project that has been promoting women in the labour market since 2007.

    The programme is an initiative of the Federação de Instituições Beneficentes (FIB), a network of close to 250 civil society organisations with the backing of Petrobras and Eletrobras, the state-run oil and power companies.

    The construction women received 460 hours of teaching and training: 180 hours of hands-on coursework, 120 hours of training in areas like bricklaying, painting, carpentry and plumbing, and 160 hours of classes on subjects like citizenship education, gender and health, and workplace safety.

    The project, which targets women heads of households, also helps them find employment in public and private companies, with a 70 percent success rate so far.

    “We are trying to break with the concept that women have no place on a construction site,” says Norma Sá, coordinator of Mão na Massa, during a visit by this TerraViva correspondent to the work site.

    The idea emerged after Deise Gravina, a civil engineer and the president of FIB, saw that women in the favelas, or shantytowns, often helped their fathers or husbands to build or upgrade their homes.

    A study confirmed that many women were keen on becoming construction workers but did not attempt to learn the trade because they saw it as a male profession.

    Sunilda dos Santos, 36, had been supporting her two children and a grandchild on her own, washing and ironing clothes. But she decided to become a carpenter “to prove to myself that I could do it.”

    The men have had to get used to it, Santos says. “They don’t totally accept us, because we’re invading their field. We try to understand their point of view. It’s also difficult for them.”

    The women have turned out to be excellent workers in areas where it is hard to find good professionals, such as workplace safety, Rodrigues says.

    Are the men jealous? “On the contrary, now that they’re here, the guys show up looking tidier and wearing perfume, and they curse less.”

    Technological development, she says, has toppled the myth that construction work is “too heavy” for women.

    In 2007, there were 186,000 women in civil construction in Brazil. Of these, 127,000 had formal sector jobs, 9,000 were self-employed, and 16,000 were working without pay, helping family members build. Another 28,000 were building their own homes, and 6,000 were employers.

    The government’s special secretariat for policy on women reports that female participation in civil construction has been increasing steadily. From 2008 to 2009 alone, it grew three percent, thanks also to the boom in construction driven by the increase in family income and the greater availability of housing loans.

    Another factor is higher spending on public works, which has driven the hiring of women by means of incentives and rules for construction companies.

    Since 2009, the secretariat has been carrying out a “women building autonomy in civil construction” programme, with the goal of training 2,670 workers in the first two years in the states of Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul, with backing from state and municipal governments.

    María Rosa Lombardi with the Carlos Chagas Foundation, a renowned Brazilian educational institution, says the growing presence of women in the labour market has not yet been accompanied by equal pay or access to promotions and higher-level positions.

    The sociologist told TerraViva that the labour market in Brazil is still “very machista”. She also expressed her concern that the growing demand for jobs for women in a limited labour market would drive up unemployment, which is traditionally higher among women.

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