September 17, 2012 | Economic Opportunity
Water: A Pathway to Women’s Empowerment
The Women for Water Partnership works to support women in 90 countries to launch and sustain water-related projects in their communities. The women’s leadership of these projects generates goodwill within their communities and self-esteem amongst the women themselves, leading to women's empowerment.
By Anna Louie Sussman
To Alice Bouman, water is both a means and an end. Water, of course, enables life. But it also serves as a tool to empower women.
As President of the Women for Water Partnership, Bouman has seen how putting women at the center of a conversation around water enables them to gain the confidence and community support they need to tackle other issues of importance, like HIV/AIDS, female genital mutilation, or domestic violence.
The Women for Water Partnership works to support women in 90 countries to launch and sustain water-related projects in their communities. But more importantly, says Bouman, the women’s leadership of these projects generates goodwill within their communities and self-esteem amongst the women themselves.
“You give them face and confidence and voice -- and then in no time, once they have established their role, they will address all the issues that have to do with inequality, whether it’s women in decision-making or female circumcision. They are acknowledged as having a voice in their community.”
She contrasts this approach with that of a more standard women’s rights group, in which activists enter a community, advocate for women’s rights, and leave.
“Once all those activists have gone, nothing changes, because the activists' ideas threaten everything in their society. However, if you go in giving women a role in water, nobody objects,” she said. “Everybody wants that, because water is good for the entire community, so you get the men and local leaders on board and, in the process, you strengthen women and their organizations because you give them the opportunity to rally around something that is good for the community. It strengthens community rather than dividing the social structure.”
Worldwide, about two-thirds of families rely on women to get water for the home, according to the World Health Organization. In Asia and Africa, women carry over 40 pounds of water on their heads. By one estimate, women spend 200 million hours per day carrying water. Performing this chore keeps young girls out of school, and women out of the workforce. In contrast, Women for Water Partnership makes women the bearers of water in a sustainable way.
In Tanzania, for example, the Women for Water Partnership funded one of its member organizations, the Tegemeo Women’s Group. The group lives and works in a remote village with no water infrastructure and little opportunity for income generation. Seven years ago, the group applied to Women for Water Partnership for seed money, which they used to travel to the Tanzania Gender Festival, organized by another of Women for Water’s member organizations. There, Bouman said, they met with other grassroots activists in similar situations.
“By bringing all those people together, people discover that they are not on their own. Everybody has the same problems. They all have rape or discrimination in their communities. Knowing that you’re not on your own, knowing that you have rights, and knowing that you have other people you can turn to if you need support, this strengthens them enormously,” she said.
With that solidarity behind them, the women returned home and demanded that their local authorities secure a water title that would enable them to initiate an infrastructure project.
“The first time the authorities didn’t even let the women inside the door,” said Bouman. “The women came back with more. They were not allowed in. They came back with more. So in the end, they rallied about forty women, and that’s when the local authorities listened to them. Within six months, they had a water title secured for the community and this was the start of working with the district water engineers to have the project designed.”
The other key aspect of the Partnership’s work is collaboration. By holding working conferences and exchanges visits, Women for Water facilitates the spread of best practices and establishes a neutral forum where stakeholders can tease out solutions to challenging problems. In 2005, a Romanian member organization approached the Women for Water Partnership because the babies in a small village, Garla Mare, were contracting diarrhea from an overabundance of nitrate in the water. The solution, they knew, was to build dry latrines to prevent human waste from polluting the groundwater, but the village was too poor to buy them.
The Partnership convened a working conference in the Netherlands, bringing in the village women, their mayor, local water authorities, donors, and other women’s groups who had faced similar problems. The first day was given over to laying out the issue.
“We start this dynamic networking by making sure that everybody has the same idea on what the real issue is. Sometimes they come up with a totally different real problem, not the one they had originally imagined, but in this case, everybody agreed that this was something that could be done. But then the mayor said, ‘I am totally convinced, but I have no money,’ and the donors said, ‘Well, this is so small. This is not interesting for us.’”
Over the next few days, far away from the constraints and distractions of local politics, everyone worked towards hammering out a solution. Ultimately, the mayor agreed to offer tax credits to villagers who purchased ecologically sound latrines. “I’m not sure that this would ever have happened in the normal setting of the village, because the mayor wouldn’t have listened,” said Bouman.
Putting women at the center of the Partnership has allowed it to grow from a loose coalition that had its roots in the women’s tent at the 2002 Johannesburg Conference on Sustainable Development to a registered non-profit and one of 30 members of UN-Water, a mechanism that works throughout the UN system on freshwater issues. Women, Bouman believes, connect to one another in a uniquely powerful way.
“Women are organized in all different networks and layers,” she said. “They are in business, they are the leaders in politics and policy making but also in the grassroots movement. This unique feature--that women’s social structures cuts across layers in society, across boundaries, thematic orientation, religious affiliation, and political beliefs--allows women to connect on issues that concern mankind and women in particular. That’s how people from very different backgrounds and beliefs can relate to each other and join to pick up an issue.”
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.