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Water and Gender

August 25, 2010

Tanzania Water Network Mobilizes for Gender Equity in Water Access

I have always known that lack of access to safe water unduly burdens women and girls. We often hear stories of how women and girls spend hours collecting water for their households and as a result are kept from productive work and school. As Usu Mallya of the Tanzania Gender Networking Program (TGNP) rightly puts it, “Most water finds its way to households on the woman’s head, and the patriarchal attitude of the society brings the perception that women will carry water.” Because I’ve heard stories like this before, I wasn’t expecting to leave Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, after our visit to TGNP preoccupied by water and gender — but I couldn’t get them out of my head.

This train of thought began when members of the Tanzania Water Network, a network formed in 2009 during TGNP’s Gender Festival, shared their experiences with us. Like a river, the gender implications of lack of water access run deeper than I realized. First is the issue of water as a burden and water as an income. Yes, women trek several kilometers to get water, but when they have to pay for water, who do they buy it from? Before now, I never seriously considered that it’s rare to see a female water vendor. Indeed, it is men that sell water and earn income from it — the women who carry it sadly never get to earn a living from it.

Another area of concern is water and maternal health. Gemma, the former executive director of TGNP and member of the network, observes that “without water a woman cannot get good, nutritious food. Even when she has the food, she needs water to prepare it. This is an issue especially for pregnant women who need good nutrition to have a healthy pregnancy.” While sharing the experiences of a community near Dar es Salaam, a woman named Halima explained that “the problem is so acute due to the change in weather and increase in population. Even to deliver a child at the hospital, women have to bring water for the nurses to clean them and the baby.”

Also, there are stories of what happens to women in between their homes and water sources. Gender-based violence (GBV) in water collection has terrible consequences. Rehema, of the Kigogo Women and Youth Development Group, took time to explain to me how gender-based violence is linked with water collection. She said that when water is fetched from distance, it means women get home late and sometimes their husbands who are “not patient with them” beat them. Also, at the water point everyone scrambles to get water. “Unemployed boys” seeking water to sell sometimes beat girls and women in order to get water out of turn. To crown it all, young girls sometimes are raped while searching for water. Some of these girls get pregnant and some are exposed to HIV/AIDS. I could only sigh as Rehema painted the picture.

But these women are not just sitting and watching. TGNP, with funding from UUSC, is educating women and youth in Tanzania about water problems and helping them learn and analyze the gender issues involved. Through TGNP, UUSC provided seed funding for the start-up of the Tanzania Water Network. Also, through TGNP’s weekly Gender Development and Seminar Series (GDSS) and other programs, women are learning and taking action. As a result, many women have been motivated to become “water activists,” as they love to be called, and are now helping organize their communities around water issues.

I was inspired by what Gertrude of the network said about TGNP learning sessions: “TGNP has built our capacity and now we have a voice. We no longer just stare at the problem, now we can identify our problems and the opportunities open for us. We’re able to mobilize women and help them stand for leadership. TGNP has made us community animators. We could be members of parliament in the future because of this.”

We participated in a GDSS session on our visit. During the session, more than 100 participants were divided into small groups, and each group was given a picture to discuss. My group’s picture showed a pregnant woman who, on her way back from collecting water, was ambushed by criminals and a snake. My group, like all the others, was actively engaged as they discussed the picture in Swahili. At the end, a member of the group presented the findings and relayed the group’s suggestions for change, which included that women should be more involved in decisions about water and also that more women should be elected into decision-making positions.

As I journeyed back to the United States, I thought about these women a lot. I told myself that the road may be rough at the moment, but these women will get there. As the saying goes, “knowledge is power.” As they learn about their rights, they will be continually empowered to fight for those rights and change their world. With UUSC’s support and with TGNP’s help, a brighter future beckons.

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