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Water for Women, Women for Water

Published on: 31/10/2014

Not only does the accessibility of water play an important role in improving the well-being of Burkina Faso's women, but women too, play a crucial role in guaranteeing the sustainability of water services in the country. But what is the main challenge that women in Burkina Faso face when it comes to truly participating in the decision-making process? And what should be done to overcome this challenge?

In Burkina Faso, water is largely considered to be a woman's domain, with women often entirely in charge of finding and providing water for their households. In water-scarce regions such as Burkina Faso's Sahel region, women are therefore also most affected by the unreliable water situation. Paradoxically, women are rarely consulted about any decisions concerning water.

The reasons why women should take on a more prominent role in water service decision-making are various. The most obvious one is that women, of course, are most affected by a situation of water scarcity due to their role in providing water. Whether this means walking long distances in the search of water, or sleeping next to a hand pump in order to ensure a chance to get hold of water, the responsibility of providing for water takes up a lot of women's time. Next to the time-consuming nature of searching for water, carrying large amounts of water is a physically exhausting task, which can put women at risk in several different ways. An improvement in women's access to water can therefore relieve women from this difficult task, and also free up time which women can use for other productive activities, starting with a greater school attendance as young girls, and later on exploring their options for doing income-generating work. Through mere access to water services, women's well-being can therefore be significantly improved at many levels. However, the implication of women in water-related interventions should not end there.

Being the country's primary water users, it would only seem logical to consult women about certain practical aspects of water provision, if only as a source that contributes to an informed planning on water services based on demand and usage. Still,a recent study by CARE International in cooperation with IRC, carried out under the USAID-funded WA-WASH program, suggests that this is hardly ever the case in Burkina Faso's Sahel region, which can lead to faulty planning of several practical aspects of water delivery, such as the localization of new hand pumps, a realistic pricing of services, or the taking into account of other determining factors with regards to water usage.

This same research highlights how the lack of female involvement in the Sahel region has contributed to a variety of water and sanitation problems we see today. To start, even in the case where hand pumps with clean water are physically present in or around villages, there is evidence that women often resort to other sources of water, regardless of quality, due to accessibility issues, time constraints, and even a lack of knowledge about the hazards of consuming non-potable water. This implicates all sorts of health issues, and certainly does not help to improve the current situation in Burkina Faso where 12,000 children under the age of five die annually from water-related illnesses.

However, the importance of women's role in service delivery goes even further, as a study by the World Bank and IRC has demonstrated a higher sustainability and effectiveness in water and sanitation projects designed and run with the full participation of women. Conversely, the previously mentioned research in the Sahel region identifies persisting gender roles as a major obstacle to the participation of women. Even though women in the areas studied have been stimulated to become members of water user associations, a recent workshop organized by CARE and IRC , underlined how their traditional role in a male-dominated society still makes it difficult for women to take on a participative role. Realizing the importance of overcoming these barriers to women's participation, this implies the necessity of uncovering and explicitly addressing the socio-cultural restrictions faced by women so as to ensure true, actual, female participation in designing and running water services.

All in all, women's inclusion in services should be recognized due to its important role in boosting the sustainability of water services in the country, as well as its potential in tackling gender issues when the approach is properly implemented. Although focusing on what water can do for Burkinabé women is an important step towards women's empowerment, it is prone to only attract the attention of those already working in the field of women's rights, and may limit the scope of work to mere water provision. As has been demonstrated in Burkina Faso, women's involvement and contribution to water services form an essential component towards attaining universal and sustainable services in the country. This is a matter that concerns and requires the commitment on behalf of all actors working towards this same goal. But, once again, addressing barriers faced by women in the sector is a fundamental step in adequately understanding and implementing the "women for water" concept, thereby simultaneously guaranteeing improvements in gender equality and the sustainability of services in Burkina Faso.

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