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Hand Pump Mechanics are always on call to repair water sources whenever they break down. Water source repair is largely a man's world, but who says a girl cannot fit in?
Susan Alobo is the only female member of the Lira District Hand Pump Mechanics Association (HPMA) which brings together 32 Hand Pump Mechanics. She is the hand pump mechanic (HPM) attached to Adekwokok Sub county, and the treasurer of the association.
Susan joined the District Water Office as an engineering intern in 2009, and there she got an opportunity to work with the HPMs. She often joined them to learn how repairs were done and she found the work immensely interesting. Later when she completed her studies, and got a job with an NGO, she found it irresistible to join the HPMA as a member. The Association was formed to enable hand pump mechanics to work together with the district local government to improve functionality of water sources. Susan currently serves as the association treasurer – a position she got because of the trust that many people have in women. In her work with NGOs she also does source repairs and says she has repaired a good number of boreholes.
Susan's motivation to join the HPMA was the need to bring a gender angle to the mechanic's job and address women's key concerns. In her view, women are the ones most concerned with water issues at household level. They fetch water and they do the chores which require water. Women are particularly affected when sources break down owing to poor Operation & Maintenance (O&M). In most cases women are the ones who pay the O&M fees. Men don't pay user fees because they feel that women are the household water users. "Women suffer when there is a shortage of water. They walk the distances and carry the load. So we need to maintain functionality of sources at community level to save women."
Susan says that most water facility designs do not favour women. For example, it is strenuous for most women to pump a borehole. Some boreholes have too many pipes and one needs a lot of energy to pump any amount of water. It is also a hard job for women to walk long distances carrying water to their homes.
She therefore suggests that it is time to change to sources that favour women's needs arguing, "We should move away from boreholes to piped water supply. It may be expensive but it will save the women a lot of time. One production well drilled and piped would serve an entire parish. This will reduce the queues." Currently there are long queues at boreholes because of the time it takes to fill a single container. Hence women have to sit for hours waiting for their turn. Piped water on the other hand would reduce the waiting time significantly. It would also enable women to save time and engage in other economic productive activities.
Apart from repairing boreholes, Susan says that the HPMs also carry out sanitation promotion. They take time off to educate water users about the need to maintain sanitation at the source and at home. Again, Susan sees this as an opportunity for her to give special input as a woman. "You find that a lady comes to fetch water with a dirty jerry can. I find it easy to talk to fellow women about sanitation."
On whether she thinks more ladies will join the trade of water source maintenance and repair Susan says, "I try to encourage other ladies to join me but they are still hesitant." Even at Lira Technical College where she is currently pursuing a Higher Diploma in construction engineering, Susan says there are only three ladies among 30 men. When she was doing the ordinary diploma, there were five girls among 45 boys. "Other girls in the college get surprised that I am doing a men's course, but they get encouraged. Most of them are doing courses which are less manual."
Her male colleagues in the HPMA also are surprised that a girl can do their work. They encourage and help her all the time although some still feel that for a woman this is hard work. "They always help me thinking that I won't manage the strenuous jobs. They do the heavy work and leave the lighter jobs for me. But slowly they are realizing that even a girl can handle all those tasks," she says with a smile.
For Susan, joining the Hand Pump Mechanics Association has given her the opportunity to deal directly with O&M issues and to identify what needs to be done in order to improve women's experiences with water services.
She is also happy that the Lira district HPMA is growing each day and sharing knowledge and experience with other districts which want to strengthen their own associations. "We have become a point of reference. We have shared our experiences in Tororo, Alebtong and Otuke districts. We still have a challenge convincing people to pay for O&M, but slowly they are beginning to discover that HPMs are the doctors of water sources."