Saturday, 26 June 2010

Supporting poor women to do well

Joachim Ezeji

Across the world, water remains a crucial resource but in Nigeria, as elsewhere, mostly African communities, the collection of water, whether from rivers, lakes, springs, wells, rain-water, ponds or other sources, has often been regarded as the responsibility of women. Water collection can sometimes be a very strenuous exercise, especially when the distance from the water source is great (often more than 1km) and the water is not easily accessible. In many communities, a single collection exercise can last for several hours, or in some cases, a whole day. This is a part of the daily routine for millions of women and girls in un-served communities. The involvement of children, in particular girls, in this chore restricts attendance at school, as well as time for play.

Furthermore, water-carrying exerts a toll on women’s health. Water containers typically hold about 20litres of water and weigh about 20kilograms. Carrying such a heavy weight on the head, back or hip has severe health implications for women, who commonly experience backache and joint pains. In extreme cases, of the spine and pelvic deformities result, creating complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Under these situations, a large proportion of women and girls in many rural parts of Africa has little if any chance and or economic development, and so a poverty spiral is set in spin for which the lack of access to water combined with poor basic sanitation conditions are its main pillars.

Partly responsible for this problem is the fact that the water services sector in Nigeria is in need of gender equity. While this has been obvious for many years, little attention has been directed to examining and reforming the domination of the male gender in decision –making in this sector that is so critical and basic to the daily survival of poor women, their families, and their communities. From the national ministries to the local utilities, the water sector is highly technical and male dominated. From the executive director, to the engineer, to the technician on the street, men have most of the jobs in this sector and most of the decision making power.

In the utilities, positions held by women are lower on the job hierarchy in clerical and unskilled work, including occupations such as secretaries, cashiers, customer relations and janitorial staff. Very few women work as managers, technicians and engineers. Often, women are not favoured for employment as they are perceived to have fewer responsibilities than men and are not regarded as breadwinners.

Furthermore, another constraining factor for women is that the education system did not encourage girls to take technical subjects but instead, girls were encouraged to take courses for jobs perceived to be for women, such as clerical and secretarial services. Such pre-conceived notions about appropriate employment for women subjected women to limited career prospects. Most of the utilities and ministries have no gender equity policies, gender units, or any policies or practices for gender equality.

Additionally, there are no affirmative actions or hiring policies for women, nor are there in-house professional development programmes to enable the capacity development of women staff in the professions and utilities. Though none of the utilities are ‘’actively’’ discriminating against women in terms of hiring or differential wages, none of the utilities, public or private, are actively encouraging women engineers and other women professionals to engage in the sector.

Though Nigeria has a National Policy on Women, no fully developed national gender policy exists. No progress has been achieved in domesticating what currently exists or mobilizing government ministries such as the water ministry to develop a separate and unique gender water policy. The mentioning of gender in various policy documents is dispersed and non- disaggregated. The result is that progress cannot easily be monitored. Also, the National Policy on Women failed to highlight critical implication of gender driven development or the gaps in documents such as the Nigerian constitution. None of both documents identified any pathway or guideline for addressing gender inequity in critical sectors such as the water sector.

The UN Development Report estimates that 40 billion mostly woman – hours per year are spent collecting water in sub – Saharan Africa alone. Women also report travelling further to collect water of suitable quality, because when water quality in nearby water sources declines, women and children are forced to travel further to access water. This adds to overall “time poverty” that women experience as a result of lack of access to safe water. Because women and children supply most water for the household, polluted water affects them the most because of the increased contact they have with unsafe water.

Unequal power relations place women in a disadvantaged position. Of the poorest people in the world, a shocking 70 percent are women. Women worldwide experience lower incomes on average and are more susceptible to unemployment. Where decline in water quality impacts the availability of water, more powerful groups have the advantage when accessing limited safe water sources. In West and South Darfur, of the nearly 500 women treated for rape, a majority – 82 percent were attacked while conducting daily activities such as gathering water. Women also bear the primary responsibility of caring for sick children and family members who fall ill due to unsafe water.

In developing countries, 1.3 billion women and girls live without access to a private, sanitary toilet. The lack of such a necessity forces women to go to the toilet in the open and under the cover of night, often risking rape and violence in the process. The lack of safe sanitation at school also dissuades girls from attending school after menstruation, further limiting education equality for girls.

But, if supported with basic services such as water supplies; a great many of poor women can turn their fortunes around. Apart from the many underlying health benefits; are the many inputs to ‘informal’ livelihoods activities such as small-scale cropping, livestock rearing, agro-processing and other micro-enterprises etc which are hugely dependent on adequate water supplies. In many of these activities, an adequate water supply is a crucial enabling resource: used in, or necessary for, the activity itself; freeing time (by reducing time spent collecting water); or as a key element in improved health that in turn enables women to work and girls to go to school on time and on regular bases.

Note: References has been used for this article though not cited. Author can supply them on request.

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