Transforming Traditional Roles: Empowering Women to Improve their Communities

In Afghanistan, mothers are trained in improved hygiene practices as part of USAID's MCHIP project.
In Afghanistan, mothers are trained in improved hygiene practices as part of USAID's MCHIP project.
Save the Children and Unilever/Lifebuoy

Mamlakat Abduqahorova is a Tajik farmer, wife, mother, and grandmother who dreams of making a difference. “Women have the potential to be the ideal leaders,” she said. “Working in the fields, we experience firsthand how lack of water affects the ability of crops to grow. As mothers, we understand the plight of other families and see the impact on the nutrition of our children.”

Around the world, scores of women like Mamlakat have the drive and knowledge to lead in the water sector. Nevertheless, social and cultural barriers often restrict women from playing meaningful decision-making roles or holding influential positions of power in community water management.

USAID is working to dismantle these barriers. “Because women tend to be the most impacted by water scarcity issues and play a central role in the management, distribution, and safeguarding of water, they have a wealth of knowledge of the most critical issues within their communities,” said Tamara Shaya, communications specialist with USAID's Office of Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment. “USAID thus desires to ensure we listen to the voices and experience of women to reduce gender inequality.”

Women Take the Lead

In Tajikistan, a USAID Feed the Future project enabled women like Mamlakat to harness their knowledge to lift their communities out of poverty. Eighty-six percent of rural Tajik women work in agriculture. But most of them lack land ownership rights, which has prevented them from serving on water user associations where they could play a role in decision-making.

USAID, along with implementing partners DAI and Winrock International, established legal aid centers that help female farmers gain land-use rights and secure positions in water user associations.

The project has benefited thousands of men and women. The women leaders educated themselves and others on how to renovate outdated irrigation infrastructure, reduce waterborne diseases, improve food production, and boost children’s nutrition. This led to concrete changes.

They repaired the dilapidated irrigation systems that had previously languished, unimproved for over a generation. The improved irrigation technology is expected to bring 80,000 hectares of new land into production, increasing community members’ ability to grow healthy food to feed their families.

Consequently, villagers are starting to discard long-held prejudices. “In Tajikistan we are seeing changing attitudes about women in leadership positions,” said Aviva Kutnick, a USAID agriculture development officer in Tajikistan. “Women leaders can be role models for women who might not have access now. That can have a transformative effect.”

Ughuloi Abdulloeva, chairwoman of the Obchakoron Water User Association, has seen attitudes change firsthand. "At the beginning of my work, both farmers and the local government looked at me with suspicion thinking, ‘How can a woman

manage an organization?’ But after working together and more closely for some time, especially when solving some problems in the district, they changed their minds and began treating us differently, with respect.” Now, the biggest farms come to Ms. Abdulloeva for advice and consultations on how to attract and involve women into the work. “It is important to have women in any organization, as a woman does her work with a mother's care and kindness,” she said.

Passing Down Healthy Behaviors

While women’s roles as community leaders may be relatively new, they have long managed the health and well being of their families. For this reason, USAID’s flagship Maternal and Child Health Integrated Program (MCHIP) works in over 50 countries around the world to educate mothers about simple hygiene changes that can lead to major reductions in disease like the treatment and safe storage of water, safe feces disposal, and handwashing with soap. In Indonesia, MCHIP, which is implemented by Jhpiego and a consortium of partners, works with mothers to promote handwashing before food preparation, after cleaning a baby’s bottom, and after using the toilet. These women have grown into hygiene leaders who influence their families and communities to take control over their health.

Handwashing with soap is a low cost and simple solution, but its effects are tremendous. The key is helping women and their households gain regular access to water and soap and persuading them to build designated handwashing stations such as “tippy taps,” which can be easily made using inexpensive, locally available materials.

Proper hygiene must extend to schools so girls can grow into women who will make a difference. Without sanitary, private latrines in schools, girls may find it impossible to attend, especially after they reach puberty and begin menstruating. Staying home to avoid inadequate facilities can lead to girls missing 10 to 20 percent of class days, at an obvious cost to their education and future prospects.

USAID/Zambia launched the Schools Promoting Learning Achievement through Sanitation and Hygiene (SPLASH) program in 2012 in cooperation with the

USAID-funded, FHI 360 and CARE implemented WASHplus project, the Bureau for Global Health’s flagship environmental health activity. SPLASH works in 634 schools in Zambia to build toilets, improve or install water points, educate students about hygiene, and ensure schools are healthy environments for girls and boys.

This has made a big difference, especially to teenage girls. “If a girl misses five days of school a month, it exacerbates the already-existing disparities in female education,” said Renuka Bery, WASH integration specialist at WASHplus. “Small actions–something as simple as having a refuse bag on the wall–or separate toilets with washing areas for girls, can help girls feel more comfortable going to school.” Improved attendance means more educated women equipped to make a difference.

In less than two years, SPLASH has observed a 15 percent increase in attendance as a result of these interventions. Teenage girls are especially grateful. Maria, a 16-year-old from Lundazi District, said the improved sanitation has changed her life. “At last I can stay at school and not miss anything throughout the term!”

Breaking Barriers

While many strides have been made to better educate women and empower them as leaders, culture, tradition, or religion can make them difficult to reach. USAID project staff report that even the simple act of making contact with women to provide educational materials, training, or support can be a major obstacle.

MCHIP’s staff in Zimbabwe encountered a culture in which women are discouraged from seeking health care openly due to religious practices and local customs. Health workers are often not welcome in homes. To overcome this, MCHIP sought out workers who were trained to operate discreetly and already part of the village networks, making it easier to reach more women. In some cases, this means workers may refrain from wearing uniforms or publicly announcing the reasons for their visits, to make sure they are able to get their messages out to the women who need them most.

Other USAID programs, such as the West Africa Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene Program (WA-WASH), have encountered similar obstacles when trying to reach women in conservative communities.

“In our outreach to women we have to be very careful in terms of not making it look like a revolution,” said Dr. Lakhdar Boukerrou, WA-WASH director. “You have to be cognizant of what’s going on in the community.” Dr. Boukerrou said that the biggest challenge is fostering a sense in women that they have a role to play in advancing their communities, a role beyond the traditional roles that have connected them so intimately with water for generations.

The project, which works to improve WASH services and community hygiene in Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Niger, and is implemented by the Global Water for Sustainability (GLOWS) Program at Florida International University, was forced to get creative. They trained men as “gender champions” to combat discrimination and encourage the women in their communities and were careful to respect local norms when reaching out to women. The male gender champions worked with other community members to slowly change their attitudes and enable women to access the resources they needed to thrive. “Behavior change is very complex,” said Dr. Boukerrou. “It doesn’t happen with the snap of your fingers. You can’t just go to a village and dump an idea from outside. In the end, the local people must take ownership of the ideas and see their importance for the development of their communities.”

This sustainable approach is paying off around the world, as more women take their communities’ health and welfare into their own hands. Mamlakat of Tajikistan became a water user association leader and spearheaded the drive to upgrade her community’s infrastructure. The local women are now determined to never let it–or their community’s welfare–languish. “We put a lot of our time and effort into this process and as a result will never let it collapse again,” Mamlakat said.

K. Unger Baillie

For more information

WASHplus website

MCHIP Website

WA-WASH Website

Last updated: January 06, 2014

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