Women and Water-Resource Management in Africa
Revision for “Women and Water-Resource Management in Africa” created on December 1, 2015 @ 17:06:50
Women and Water-Resource Management in Africa
Most countries in Africa have large regions that suffer acute water shortages, either periodically or on a permanent basis. Consequently, in most of the continent, effective water-resource management is of critical importance.
Although research in the 1990s has demonstrated that African women are active participants in economic development, there has been relatively little systematic factoring of gender considerations into resource-allocation decisions. Despite substantial evidence of the economic profitability of this approach, traditional assumptions about the domestic roles of women continue to guide policymakers.
Inherently conservative attitudes of environmental planners and water-resource managers toward mainstreaming gender concerns into their analyses reflect those of the broader society. Another reason is a continued, deeply rooted resistance to power sharing: this resistance finds its origins in a desire to maintain the status quo and to see women as passive bystanders. It provides a means of reducing political controversy around allocation of water resources because, by minimizing or discounting the specific needs of women, water-resource managers are able to remove at least one potential source of conflict over water allocation.
Water-resource planners, representing both national governments and donors, have focused their attention on women’s reproductive, primarily domestic, responsibilities. This has been a fundamental error because women’s strategic interest in water is closely associated with their productive roles (which, in turn, are often synchronous with their reproductive tasks). In overlooking this reality, planners have seriously undermined the capacity of women to make a substantial contribution to national-development processes, and this has led to significant losses of water resources in Africa.
Sustainability of water and sanitation systems is often problematic in the absence of year-round use of the systems. In some cases, to save time, women will use closer sources of water, even if the water quality is not optimal. In other cases, the financial contributions needed to maintain the system may become too burdensome for communities after donor support has ended, and systems may remain in disrepair for long periods. Lack of local expertise to repair and maintain systems also continues to be a problem, as does unavailability of spare parts.
Cultural patterns may also have an impact. Research in Tanzania revealed that even when water was readily available, women hesitated to use it to keep their children’s faces clean because this was not considered a priority and went against the wishes of their husbands. A study in Kenya (Government of Kenya and UNICEF 1992) noted that there is evidence that in some communities men will give precedence to the building of a corrugated iron roofed house, purchase of a bicycle or marrying of a second wife over the supply of basic house hold necessities such as food and water. It is evident that prevailing cultural role expectations for both men and women can have critical importance in determining attitudes toward water-resource use and management.
African women’s capacity to have input into water-resource use and management is further hampered by their lack of exposure to science and technology. To make informed choices and decisions, potential beneficiaries of water systems should have basic knowledge and understanding of the technologies involved. Women are particularly disadvantaged because of their lack of confidence about technological matters and because of negative male attitudes toward female technical knowledge.
As a result of the sexual division of labour, women are often at higher risk of exposure to waterborne diseases. Washing clothes, bathing children, drawing water from surface sources, and, in some regions, working in flooded rice fields all increase rural women’s risk of exposure to disease-ridden water sources. Cultural preferences, shared by men and women, can also have a negative impact. A study in Egypt showed that women (and men) believed that canal water lathered clothes more effectively and made them whiter, so they preferred to wash their clothes in the canal (where risk of exposure to schistosomiasis was high), rather than washing them under a tap or in a washing machine.
African governments and donors have tended to see the maintenance of family health through safe water and sanitation as primarily a female responsibility. For example, in 1987 the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women held seminars in Ethiopia and Kenya that focused specifically on women, water supply, and sanitation.
These seminars moved beyond a purely functional perspective on women’s involvement because they emphasized the need for women to become key actors in water supply and sanitation, with input into decision-making and knowledge about technical maintenance of local water and sanitation systems. At the same time, however, they focused heavily on women’s role in cleaning the environment and in looking after family hygiene and on educating women about water and sanitation issues. To some extent, this reinforces the notion that women have a special responsibility for family sanitation and hygiene. Such efforts do not address the more fundamental issue – that water and sanitation facilities, which are used by both men and women, should be a joint responsibility, not only in terms of sharing of labour input but also in terms of sharing of decision-making and associated power.