HFH builds for the disabled in China -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

HFH builds for the disabled in China

By Wong Hiew Peng

Among the developing countries in the world, China can take pride in its dramatic large-scale reduction of poverty. Using the World Bank’s poverty measure of living on less than US$1 per day, the number of poor in China is estimated to have dropped from 490 million in 1982 to 88 million in 2002.

The world’s most populous country has its rapid annual economic growth of more than 9 percent (1979–2003) to thank for its successful reduction of poverty. Reforms and structural changes since 1978, in turn, played a key role in spurring economic growth.


According to a case study presented at the Shanghai Poverty Conference in 2004, poverty is a rural phenomenon in China with 80 million of China’s rural population remaining poor. During the 1990s, China’s rural poor population shrank and was further concentrated in the western regions. The southwestern province of Yunnan had a 9.4 percent share of China’s rural poor in 1994, topping the list of 31 provinces.

It was in Yunnan that Habitat for Humanity chose to start its China operations in 2002. In the Yunnan Disabled People’s Federation, Habitat found a partner that is equally committed to improving the inadequate housing of the disabled in the province.

Yunnan is also home to many of China’s 800 leprosy villages in which people who have been seriously affected by the disease have lived since the 1960s and 1970s. Though many of those who have been afflicted have been cured, more than half of China’s 230,000 leprosy-affected people were left with permanent eye damage and disabilities. Leaving an indelible mark also is the social stigma that leprosy-affected people have to endure.

According to Professor Yang Lihe, a retired leprosy specialist, residents of leprosy villages in China were not normally issued with household registration certificates (hukou) or official identity cards (shenfenzheng). For all official purposes, leprosy-affected people could well be invisible.

But their plight is clear to Habitat and its partners that include the Yunnan Disabled People’s Federation, the Leprosy Mission International and county governments. Since 2003, more than 100 families in various leprosy villages in Yunnan have benefited from the houses that Habitat and its partners have built.

Encouraged by the positive results of its Yunnan programs, Habitat extended its presence in China by setting up project offices in the neighboring Guangdong province in 2004 and Guangxi province in 2005. While the Guangxi project office develops work projects throughout rural communities in the poor province, the Guangdong project office serves families in disadvantaged areas.

In 2005, the Guangxi office launched its first project in partnership with the Leprosy Mission International to build 10 new homes for elderly villagers in Dingwo Leprosy Village. When it was first founded in 1956, Dingwo Leprosy Village had more than 150 inhabitants. In the early 1980s, as new treatment for leprosy became widely available, the villagers were pushed to return to their families in the countryside. Over the years, the numbers dwindled as 80 percent of inhabitants recovered and returned to their own homes and others died. Those who had no homes to return to or were completely rejected by their families stayed behind and made do with a meager government subsidy. By 2005, the remaining 10 inhabitants faced problems of leaking roofs and a lack of clean water as well as sanitation facilities. Security was also a problem as people from surrounding villages were suspected of stealing things from the leprosy-affected people.

For the Dingwo project, Habitat constructed 10 28-square-meter homes in a courtyard design with a public bathroom and a 40-meter-deep drinking water well. The courtyard design and activities room with a TV and DVD player encourage the villagers to interact more with each other. The design enhances security by allowing residents to lock the steel gate at night. The residents are using their old homes that were left intact to raise animals through microfinance loans from Habitat.

The single story houses that Habitat built for leprosy sufferers in Yunnan, Guangdong and Guangxi are not very different from other houses in these regions. They are generally smaller than typical houses, ranging from 20 to 80 square meters in size, with one or two bedrooms and a separate kitchen area.

House designs vary from village to village and from project to project but hygiene is a key consideration. For example, in houses built for leprosy-affected people, a tiled or concrete floor will take the place of the usual dirt floor of a typical house for the poor. Habitat will also ensure that all the surfaces of the houses have edges smoothened by high quality plastering and tiling. This is to prevent further injuries to leprosy-affected people who have lost feeling in their affected limbs. In the kitchen area, the stoves are built with chimneys to direct smoke away from the sensitive eyes of leprosy-affected people.

The toilets are specially designed with new tiling and proper flushing to improve cleanliness and reduce the risk of infection for the leprosy-affected people who have open wounds. In view of their disabilities, communal toilets for the use of three to four persons are also built. This enables more efficient cleaning and maintenance of the toilets through group effort.

In March 2006, Habitat and the Leprosy Mission International extended their partnership by agreeing to work on community development, micro-enterprise projects as well as providing housing for 46 leprosy-afflicted families and others with physical disabilities in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The five-year partnership that stretches to 2010 will see TLMI committing up to 100,000 pounds.

Over in nearby Guangdong province, Habitat’s project office chose to launch its pilot project in Changliu, a village in the mountains about two hours’ drive from the provincial capital, Guangzhou. The Guangzhou Disabled People’s Federation had referred Habitat to the village where Habitat evaluated individual needs, ability to repay loans under the Save & Build model, and willingness to participate in the scheme and contribute their own labor in the construction of the houses. The Save & Build model calls for the home partners to save for one-third of the cost of the house while Habitat and its partners provide the remaining amounts.

Seven low-income families who rely on subsistence farming and have disabled members were selected for the Changliu project. Made of compressed earth bricks and dirt floors, their houses were dark, damp and dirty, with leaky ceilings and cracked walls.

The Yangs were the first family in Changliu to have their home built by Habitat. When the two-bedroom house was completed in July 2005, Yang Liutai said: “Hopefully the new room will be better for our health and lower our costs for medicine.” His father is deaf and his mother is handicapped.

The Yang’s new house also featured a flat cement roof which could be used to dry fruit such as plums and tangerines, the sale of which would help them repay the loan.

Despite their disabilities, many of Habitat’s home partners did not hesitate to render “sweat equity”—or their own labor—in the construction of their homes. While they may be unable to take on more strenuous tasks, many often helped to carry bricks to the build site, remove debris or plaster the walls.

In December 2005, the Guangdong project office continued to work with the disabled in Shiling village, Guangzhou, by launching a six-house project for families both with and without disabled members. This served to increase the acceptance and integration of families with disabilities into the larger community.

Besides the disabled in Guangdong, Habitat also provided assistance to families with leprosy and disabilities in a leprosy village south of the province. Habitat is involved in the construction of 24 homes in cooperation with the Lions Club International Foundation and Guangdong Lions Club.

Just as Chinese president Hu Jintao called upon the entire Chinese society to respect, care for and help the disabled, Habitat and its partners are playing a key role to address the needs of this group of people. With decent and safe shelters, the disabled—including the leprosy-affected people—can take better care of their health, improve their means of livelihood and live with dignity.

Wong Hiew Peng is a writer/editor for HFH in Asia and the Pacific.