Why women’s involvement in water and sanitation development is important

Women in WASH

Last week on March 8 was International Women’s Day (IWD). This year’s theme was “Inspiring Change”.  Four women inspiring change in the WASH sector came together during the World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, in September last year. They were Water For People’s Kate Fogelberg; IRC’s Vida Duti and Jane Nabunnya Mulumba, and Alice Bouman, President of the Women for Water Partnership. They talked about the role of women in the WASH sector.

Women leadership in WASH is needed and should be actively promoted. This was one of the main outcomes of the panel discussion on Women and WASH led by the four women mentioned above. The discussion highlighted the role of women leaders in WASH, the question of why more focus on the role of women is so important, and what lack of access to improved water and sanitation services means for women in rural areas in different country contexts.

A few of the key themes that emerged that might further improve and support women’s leadership included:

  • Importance of role models for women and encouragement to stand up

The discussion highlighted how women can often feel that they will be considered pushy or aggressive if they voice their opinions or show their skills, more so than men, where being assertive is considered appropriate. Therefore men and women need to be role models for up-and-coming women leaders and encourage them to take charge to overcome these unfair labels. The participants agreed this was not an easy road and one still with many obstacles—especially verbal abuse—but an important stance for changing perceptions.

  • Breaking out of traditional women job roles

The women also discussed that there are still job roles that many women get pushed into; for example, women are expected to do health and hygiene promotion instead of becoming engineers.

“There is still a lot of stigma about women in the water sector, both with respect to women water professionals and the role of women’s civil society groups,” argued Alice Bouman-Dentener. According to Bouman-Dentener, this is related to the predominantly technical angle through which water and sanitation provision is traditionally approached. Diversity and inclusion increases the quality of decision-making and management, both at the level of individuals and of stakeholder groups. The Dublin Principles for Integrated Water Resources Management already acknowledged that in 1992.

Jane Nabunnya Mulumba agreed, “The WASH sector is just beginning to acknowledge that women too can be engineers, hydrologists, and hydro-geologists.” The leadership of the WASH sector is still male dominated with just a few exceptions. For women to work well and excel in the WASH sector, Nabunnya Mulumba believes that women need confidence in themselves. “It’s a field where women have been endangered species,” she added.

And often, women are not interested in working in technical fields, so efforts must be made to market technical fields to women. Nabunnya Mulumba remarked, “For women to fully occupy their place in the WASH sector, opportunities in the education and training/capacity building systems should be provided. Women often give excuses that they are being treated differently or mistreated because they are women. While this has been the case, there are many changes in place that have enabled men to look at women as members of the team, as engineers or social scientists etc. in their own right.”

  • Get gender back on the WASH agenda but do it with sustainable results in mind

The participants agreed that gender is still a critical issue to highlight and push forward. Gender stereotypes persist, oppression and harassment of women is still an issue, which some of them experienced personally. But they also said this must be done carefully as sometimes the basics of development have been pushed aside for the issue of gender. Policies can be important but there are also plenty of examples with policy and no action. There is an important balance. The women expressed it was important for them as leaders to be seen as moving things and making progress.

The stigma of women is an alarming conclusion in a sector where failure to deliver sustainable water and sanitation for all is predominantly a social issue. Kate Fogelberg, South America Regional Manager at Water For People, explains, “It’s a woman that’s going to benefit from a sustainable service over time. Having to walk a long time, having to carry water, having to look for a place to go to the bathroom, and girls dropping out of school when they start menstruating are burdens that improved water and sanitation services alleviate.” It’s a fundamental improvement of women’s daily life.

Fogelberg continues, “We need implementers, planners, donors, and policy makers to shift from thinking about one project somewhere to a service that’s going to benefit women and her children over time. As a sector, we can start to think about the story of women and water differently.”

And change is possible. In Uganda, the space for women to work in and contribute to the WASH sector is there. The political will is evidenced in having all three ministers in the Ministry of Water and Environment between 2006-2012 being women and currently two out of three are women.

But both Nabunnya Mulumba and Bouman-Dentener agree that there still is a lot of work to do. Bouman-Dentener explains, “There is a tentative mind set change to a more inclusive approach. But women leadership still has to be actively promoted. Women leadership does not mean that women at the top should start behaving like men. The added value is in diversity and inclusion, not in exchanging the current prevailing (masculine) approach in decision-making by more of the same.”

Based on a session at the Stockholm World Water Week 2013 by IRC and Water for People

Vera van der Grift and John Sauer

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