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The Politics of Women's Health

A Gender Perspective on Water Resources and Sanitation

A speech by Magano Ickua at the at the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT “The Future of Water,” November 3, 2005.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

Firstly, I would like to commend the Technology and Culture Forum for providing a platform on the 2005 programme: “The Future of Water” to bring attention to the importance of women in water and sanitation management. It is a pleasure and privilege for me to participate on this panel tonight. I hope that my humble perspective will inform and enrich your own understandings as we try to find more inclusive ways of valuing the specific perspectives, capabilities and contributions that women bring in the provision, management and safeguarding of water. 

I believe that the most fundamental principle to acknowledge and promote, which came across very strongly in Marcia’s presentation, is the fact that women are integral catalysts in water resources and sanitation sustainability. They should have the right, to determine which solutions and services are most valuable to them.

The reality that I know from my own experience as a young girl in rural Owamboland in Northern Namibia, as in most African cultures, is that women are primarily responsible for the use and management of water resources, sanitation and health at the household level. In my village, Iipopo, which is a subsistence agricultural and pastoral society there was no running water until I was 18 years old. Therefore fetching water from the hand-dug waterholes with whatever containers held water most securely, was an almost daily activity. These waterholes were often dangerous as they could be as deep as five meters and as wide as another five meters. I have yet to meet any girls in my village who know how to swim. So you can imagine the compromising situation.

Alongside most domestic and community activities, water collection is a female responsibility.  The time and energy resources involved in this are considerable.  In my homestead, as in others in the village, we use water to cook, sometimes to feed up to 20 people thrice a day, bathe, wash clothes, provide to the domestic animals, and care for the sick - In a household where we have cared for 7 family members dying of AIDS within a two year period, the necessity of having enough water available is understood well.

The average daily journey time of Owambo women and girls to collect water can be 4 hours as we need water for so many uses. We would make one trip in the morning at daybreak which was about 2 hours to go and return, and another 2 hour trip in the early evening. Sometimes going was a wonderful opportunity to play, gossip or vent some frustrations with the other girls. However, given the weight of water we carried on our heads, I would say that fetching water this way probably had negative consequences for our health. Of course this also has negative consequences on the performance of school-going girls as time to engage in schoolwork with any meaningful depth is nearly impossible.

This was one experience of my childhood. The other experience came when my father was fortunate to find a job as a laborer in a small diamond mining town called Oranjemund - a De Beers Group of Mines Company in the south-most part of Namibia. My mother, my six siblings and I were able to join him there after he was promoted to hostels foreman and was eligible for a company house. We were fortunate to be enrolled in a good school where we learnt to speak English and to have the opportunity to expand our life’s possibilities with a quality education. In Oranjemund we had free running water as we lived right at the mouth of the Orange River that forms the border between Namibia and South Africa. We could take a warm shower before going to school and we did not have to concern ourselves with the possibility of not having enough water at all.

At every school holiday we would have to return to Owamboland to assist our family members who remained at the homestead to plant the fields, till the land or harvest the millet … and the situation would be the same. We would still need to fetch water from the waterholes. During the rainy season (December-February) - for those who had them - we collected water off of our tin roofs using large buckets. Also during the rainy season, my village is covered with "oshanas"--small, shallow ponds where the villagers collect water, and do laundry. The boys and men who herd livestock also bring them to the oshanas to drink so the water there is not always clean. Because Namibia is a very dry country (the driest in sub-Saharan Africa) nearly all the oshanas dry up by May. It is estimated that 83% of all rain evaporates soon after it falls, leaving just 17% available as surface runoff. Of this runoff, 1% recharges groundwater sources, and 14% is lost through evapotranspiration. Only 2% of the total rainfall can be captured by surface-water-storage facilities.

In 2000 however, a water point was installed at the school. This was the only tap in the area with clean water for almost a year so women and children walk as much as eight kilometers to come and collect water after the oshanas have dried up.

A few more water points were installed at various other locations in the village about 4 years ago. Latrines were also built at the school. Before the latrines were built, people would do their business behind a bush, including menstruating girls. 2 weeks ago, our village received electricity for the first time. All of these initiatives are in line with the Government of Namibia’s effort to make essential water supply, sanitation and energy services accessible to all Namibians.  By the year 2007, our National Development Plan (NDP) is to achieve complete community-based management of the water-points, and 80% coverage of rural water supply and sanitation for the whole of Namibia. 

According to the NDP access is defined as having an improved water source within 2.5kms of the home.

It is interesting that the location of the water points in my village was negotiated by government officials and mainly male members of the community. My mother says that the men seemed to have been more interested in impressing the government officials with their knowledge of the landscape than advancing the particular needs of women and girls!  The important thing now is that for many, water is more readily accessible. The water points are overseen by the Water Point Committees. Interestingly, in my village the Committee comprises of far more women than men members. Three men to six women. This is simply because many of the men stopped going to the meetings. The women eventually took over responsibility for ensuring that the water points were in a sustained working condition as they are more affected by the lack of access to water supply and sanitation at the household level. They know from experience the disadvantages of not having easy access to it. The committee has decided that each household contribute 10 Namibia Dollars (approximately 1.5 USD) for the maintenance and upkeep of the water points.

I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to study at Brandeis and work at the United Nations. As I think about the issues from an objective distance, I realize that it has given me a new perspective on my own experiences. One of the most significant observations I have made about my rural experience is that more than internalize the lack of access to running water as a poverty situation, we saw it as “the way that things are”, and so we understood that it was a necessary duty to fulfill and so we did it without hesitation. We were always happier that the waterholes we fetched water from were not dry as that can often be the case. When this happens, it could require us to find water elsewhere which in many cases could mean an additional 30 minutes to an hour of walking.

I provided a small glimpse of my experience in the mining town to highlight the fact that people who live in the village often do not have the option of leaving as we did. So they do what they must to stay alive and healthy and to care for the sick. It is our moral duty to create equal access of essential services and necessities as water for each and every person. There is no reason why in a country that can afford to give a select few free water, why others must go without.

Gender inequality in Namibia is pervasive, and can be especially crippling as the men and boys often do not assist their female household members with household activities that directly affect the immediate wellbeing of the family, such as fetching water for household use or caring for the sick. Namibia is no exception to the gender division of labor which characterizes rural communities throughout the world. However, in addition to this, the relative shortage of adult male labor due to migration labor patterns means that women and girls bear responsibility for an estimated 90 per cent of food and agricultural production. A lack of access to water is therefore a critical constraint in Northern Namibia's subsistence food production and general household welfare. The time spent collecting water definitely interferes with time needed to ensure food security.

Men are more responsible for specific spheres of activity, such as herding and marketing livestock, ploughing fields, or constructing homes. Men are more likely to allocate or share specific tasks with others, or take on tasks that utilize higher levels of technology, such as animal-drawn traction. In contrast, women are more likely to be engaged in the actual work itself. Children share in domestic and agricultural tasks while still young, but soon get tracked into gender-based divisions as they grow older.

In my community women are seen as subordinate to men. Men are deemed to be more significant in the major contributions they make to their communities as leaders and decision-makers, in the many children they are able to father, in their ability to make decisions for their families, and whose decisions have to be obeyed. Women on the other hand are still socialized to be obedient, tend to the household and take care of children.

My feeling is that challenging these paradigms in order to change society’s perceptions of women will be a complex and difficult thing. However, for the purposes of longer term change, as stated clearly in Ms. Brewster’s presentation, it is not wise to focus solely on empowering women without consideration of changes in gender relations at the household and community levels. I feel that for those men who want to be more involved in the day to day maintenance of the household, including fetching water and using it in the ways that women do, this should be encouraged. Women and girls also need to expand their perceptions about their own roles as women so as to provide the space for men to be involved in more than making decisions for them. This way the disproportionate burden of water use and management, sanitation and hygiene at the household level can be shared and more balanced.

The truth is that our communities are resourceful, very knowledgeable and hardworking. These psycho-social dynamics that community members bring to every development initiative are therefore immense opportunities for change. However they can also hinder development efforts if not accorded the necessary cognizance. When people look at their situation as “The way that things are”, this can sometimes impede their motivation to initiate change. From what I have seen this is particularly the case for women. They diligently work within the confines of their roles, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their families and leave the more ‘serious’ decisions to be made by men. But these serious decisions directly affect their productivity as caregivers, income-generators and homemakers. I feel that poverty in many cases becomes accepted as a generalized social and psychological phenomenon, which for the individuals it affects, is not always necessarily understood as part of a larger socio-economic barrier. When poverty interacts with these larger phenomena such as gender inequality, women are affected by it twice as much. They are poor and they are women.

Hence as agents of change we need to find and be prepared with creative ways that develop the technical and managerial skills of women in water resources and sanitation management. And we need to do this in a way that does further subordinate women and compromise their decision-making power at the household and community levels.

Thank you.

Companion Pages:  1  2  3 

Last revised: 12/12/2005

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