Water Crisis: Women's vital role in water schemes

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The Independent Online
WaterAid has always acknowledged that women play a vital role in the implementation of water schemes. They are crucial to preventative health care in the community, passing on information to family members. For women themselves water can be a life-changing force. Mengestie Bosana can testify to this. She is involved in the North Gondar project, initiated by WaterAid in l993 in association with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) and the regional Amharic government. The project provides water to 45 villages in the Gondar region of north west Ethiopia.

Mengestie lives in Awarda, a small village of windowless houses made of cow dung and straw, dependent on its crops of sorghum, tef and oil seeds. She has eight children and collects three 20 litre jerry cans of water every day for domestic use. "When we make our beer it's 11 times as much," she says. The main source of water is a spring which bursts out of the ground on an incline running from the church. The spring water is now being piped from its source through a concrete storage box to feed four collection points around the village.

The influence of the church is very strong in Ethiopia and is reflected in Mengestie's own reasons for becoming one of Awarda's health communicators (HCs). She says: "The community selected me to do this work. This is the work of the church. For us rural women the work is hard, but the work is my duty and given by God."

Along with her fellow HCs, Mengestie attended a three day training course on sanitation, water maintenance and health education. She then helped with a baseline survey in the village to assess water-related health problems, collecting information from every household in Awarda before work on the water supply began.

Sister Eradu Zegeye is head of the project's Health Education and Community Unit which uses a network of 96 HCs. Six female and two male HCs recommended by the church and community are recruited in each village along with two traditional birth attendants. By establishing a network of trained women throughout the villages, Sister Eradu can ensure health education is a fact of life in each household.

Sister Eradu says: "At first the women were shy. A woman is not traditionally allowed to talk in public in front of men. If they do people say: `You have married a bad woman.' Nor can they participate in life outside the home. They cannot speak openly at meetings. We had problems with some of their husbands at first.

"They disliked their wives going out, but are changing. The wives give their husbands health information to pass on at church gatherings. Initially the women were reluctant to talk about their personal problems, but it emerged they were worried about being dirty."

The popularity of the project's sanitation development which enables latrines to be easily constructed from locally available materials, not only highlights the growing awareness of the connection between human and animal faeces and water-borne disease, but also the problem of privacy for women. They have to wait until night before they go to the toilet.

The proximity of Lake Tana to the village belies its water problems. Heavy rains run off the crusty top soil, and springs and rivers used for drinking are shared with animals. Women stand beneath an ancient acacia tree which shades the route of the village's new gravity-fed water system.

Shashe Abeba is one of the two birth attendants who took part in a 21 day training course in Gondar. Along with her friends she has been collecting stones to cover the bed of the spring. The training course taught her the importance of clean water. "The water in our village was always dirty and we were sharing it with animals. Now we try to get them to go to the lake," she says.

According to Sister Eradu the involvement of women in the North Gondar project has had wide-reaching effects that have gone beyond the provision of efficient water supply systems.