An African Male Perspective on Women and Water: An Interview with Ivan Tibenkana

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Janice Mar/Save the Mothers
Ivan Tibenkana

Ivan Tibenkana is a graduate of the Save the Mothers (STM) Masters in Public Health Leadership program at Uganda Christian University. As the former Chairman of Budondo subcounty, he has extensive knowledge of how water issues impact communities, and women in particular. He is currently the focal point person for public health in Busoga Kingdom, which includes issues of maternal, newborn, and child health. He is an advisor for the STM Mother Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative.

What do you see as the key challenges women in your community face in relation to having access to water for domestic use, sanitation, and productive uses, for example crops for market stalls?

When it comes to water for domestic use, women walk long distances to water points that can be more than three kilometers. Some water sources run dry due to weather changes, forcing the women to walk even longer distances, which complicates their health status and spending even more time on this activity. Then, long queues at the water sources, like boreholes, take much of the woman’s valuable time. Rampant fights for water can break out due to overcrowding at limited sources which are also shared with animals. Constant breakdown of the water sources makes water supply unreliable. Thus, women have to look for other alternative sources, which are usually ponds with dirty water. If there is no water point, women collect water from streams. This water is dirty and unsafe for domestic use, polluted by human and animal wastes.

Taking too long at the water source is taboo because their spouses become suspicious of what they may be doing. Water is usually collected late in the evening or at night, after doing the usual housekeeping chores, which puts women’s lives at risk, because most water sources are located in isolated places lined with bushes. Girl children who collect water in such risky places are exposed to defilement, rape, and even kidnap for sacrifice. Some have been exposed to pregnancy and early marriages.

Traditionally, collection of water is the work of women and the girl child. This places an extra burden on them, who are already overloaded with work. Pregnant mothers are particularly challenged, because they have to carry more loads: the pregnancy, the breastfeeding baby, and the water container—these famous three loads. Sometimes, even when they are sickly, the women have to walk long distances in search of water, especially during the dry season.

Water is important for maintaining good personal, domestic, and food hygiene. It is also used for safe management of solid and liquid waste like rubbish, animal wastes, and dirty water. However, there is insufficient water to use for hygiene, let alone sanitation purposes. Sanitation is not a priority, and there is a lack of water storage facilities for water meant for this purpose.

Water for production includes water collected for domestic animals, which are kept for subsistence and sale in the community markets. It also includes water for subsistence vegetable gardens. Given all the other responsibilities, there is limited time to collect water for this purpose. In addition to the limited types of water sources and how far away they are, water sources are contaminated and water-borne diseases are common (e.g., bilharzias (schistosomiasis) and guinea worms). Inefficient water collection and utilization systems waste a lot of water.

How do you envision the role of men in meeting these challenges?

Men must be actively involved in water collection, especially by providing simple means like bicycles. They must contribute funds and labor for the quick repair of water sources and support enforcement of bylaws to influence favorable water conditions for women. They can advocate for full or active participation of women in decisions that affect them in accessing water at the community level, for example allowing women to attend community meetings.

As household heads, men should ensure equitable sharing of water collection roles, and support women in the proper allocation of water that benefits households and communities. Men should also stop domestic violence against women and children. This will create an enabling environment in which women can openly discuss the challenges faced in accessing water with all stakeholders.

Have challenges faced by women in your community changed over time?

Corinne Schuster-Wallace
“As household heads, men should ensure equitable sharing of water collection roles.”

Yes. They have become complex, and more challenging. There are increased demands for water, yet water sources are drying up. Other sources of water have been introduced to cope with the increasing demand for water (e.g., piped water). However, this water must be paid for at the tap, or by monthly bills. This is not any good for the women as they do not control household money. Water from some of these sources must be boiled to make it safe for drinking, which places an extra burden on the women to look for fuel.

Water user committees have been set up for every water source and half of the committee members must be women. The treasurer should also be a woman, yet, even then, women are still too powerless to bargain for better water conditions in an environment dominated by men.

Why do you think that this has happened?

Rapid population increase has put more pressure on water resources, and commercialization of agriculture and increases in other economic activities compete with domestic use for water. Women’s productive and reproductive workloads make their participation in leadership very difficult, and changing gender roles and women’s emancipation have made men insecure, and so less supportive of women. At the national level, changing water policies are not effective, especially for the women’s cause.

What are your hopes for women in relation to water over the next 25 years?

My hopes for the future are that women can easily access adequate and quality water for all of their needs, at all times. This includes extending more viable sources of water to the communities. Women need to be aware of waterborne diseases, and the means of avoiding such water sources. There must be active and meaningful participation of women in decision-making and policy formulation on issues concerning water. Empowered women in water utilization leads to efficient use of available water. Not only must the reproductive role played by women be recognized as a duty, but, men must be involved in the provision of water for domestic use, and support the women in other duties.

 What are your hopes for men in relation to women and water over the next 25 years?

My hope is that men are supporting women in ensuring provision of water for domestic use. There must be increased expenditure on cheap water technologies at the household level, like rainwater harvesting, and equitable sharing of the water provision burden.

I hope that there are clear strategies for provision and management of water that are appreciated by women and men, and that there are better water management structures, including roles and functions, where all stakeholders are fully represented.

Above all, I hope that the essential role of women in the provision of managing and safeguarding water is recognized by men.

Who are the most influential people for change, and what will bring them to act?

Political leaders at all levels, but most especially in local government, civil society organizations, faith-based organizations, and religious leaders, community leaders, and traditional and cultural leaders, can influence change. This can be achieved by involving all stakeholders in water provision programs, which will motivate all concerned members of the community to act. We must create awareness about the plight of women in accessing water among these stakeholders, which will also induce them to act.

What are the most promising solutions you see?

The most promising solutions are a combination of technology, policy, and practice. We need to continue developing low-cost water technologies, which increase the quantity, and quality, of water for domestic use. As population increases, water sources are stressed, therefore, there is a need to reduce wastage of available water resources.

Women need to be involved at all levels of planning and implementation of water programs and gender mainstreaming in water provision and management needs to be increased. We need to change the negative attitude of men about women becoming leaders, especially at the community level. Women should be supported to own property, which will empower them to take firm positions on issues that affect them, like water. Women must also be trained in operation and maintenance of water sources.

Lastly, one of the major water and sanitation problems is faced by girls at school, where it reaches crisis levels, forcing some girls out of school during their monthly periods. It is a double tragedy for the future mother, for both at school and in the community, they suffer submissively.