Water's Open Door
At Akodokodoi village in Northern Uganda, the tree divides us. On one side, we the project staff from CARE and partner organizations sit on short wooden folding chairs, forming a loose circle with the men. On the other side of the tree the women settle themselves on the ground. I wonder if they prefer this shield of separateness, the better to breastfeed their children or shift them around on their laps. Some look off into the distance or tug distractedly at tufts of grass, their legs stretched out in front of them.
But to assume the women to be disinterested observers would be a mistake. After the men speak of how the community worked with us to get the borehole that is now their main water source, we ask the women what difference the borehole has made for them. They speak without hesitation and with the precision of those that know what theyâre talking about. The first thing a women named Janet Adongo says is that that their husbands donât beat them anymore. In the past, they would leave early in the morning to walk three kilometers to the nearest water point at a school. Once there, they stood in line for hours. They came home to find husbands irate with hunger because lunch hadnât been prepared yet and suspicious of their wivesâ whereabouts. Violence ensued.
âThis facility is encouraging our husbands to love us more,âÂ says one woman.
The fact that lack of water close by leads to domestic violence was no surprise to me, having seen in other countries how water scarcity affects practically every aspects of domestic life. Yet this situation seemed particularly egregious.
âWhy,âÂ I question with the boldness of the naÃÂ¯ve, âdo the men not believe their wives when they say it takes half a day to get water?âÂ
At this point, the pace of the conversation picks up. There is some back and forth between the men and the women. The rest of us wait impatiently for the translation.
As I understand it, the menâs viewpoint boils down to this: collecting water is a womanâs burden to shoulder. One of the men goes as far as to say that he paid a bride price for his wife and the issue of going to verify how long it takes to get water is none of his businessââshe must work. A woman counters that she finds the issue of bride price insulting.
The situation in Akodokodoi village is by no means typical. But itâs far from unusual. It was proof to me that water is not a neutral issue but rather a deeply gendered and political one. Women get stuck with the burden of collecting it, a matter in which they have little choice. Women are usually left out of decisions about how water is used and accessed, particularly when it used for productive purposes like agriculture.
Access to safe water reduces death from diarrheal disease, helps keep children in school and frees up time that can be spent making a living. But this only temporarily ameliorates some of the unfairness to women and girls. If water scarcity increases once again, girls will be the first ones to be pulled out of school to search for water while their brothers remain undisturbed.
What are the implications of situations like this for the development organizations, donors, governments and other actors that promote, advocate and directly implement interventions that increase access to safe water and sanitation? If providing access to safe water and sanitation puts us at the nexus of power and prejudice it also gives us an open door into changing and challenging cultural and institutional norms that perpetuate inequity. Doing so not only improves the effectiveness of the programs, as weâve seen from direct experience in projects that prioritize womenâs involvement, but also has far-reaching repercussions, as these norms are also at the heart of many other poverty and social justice issues.
For development organizations, what if one of our criteria for selecting communities to assist with water access was whether they would be willing to challenge the status quo by having men and boys help with water collection responsibilities? What if policy makers prioritized womenâs control and ownership of water and land as an important an issue as their right to an education? What if water councils and watershed management bodies actively sought the participation of women in decision-making, realizing that men and women think about and use water in very different ways? What if donors supported smarter policies towards the provision of water and sanitation?
After its heated turn, the conversation in Akodokodoi village flowed to other testimonies of what a critical difference the water point made for the community. But I was most moved by the early words of those women who were not afraid to speak the truth. Letâs act with the same boldness.
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