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Q&A: Women’s Special Water Needs Find Voice

Hilmi Toros interviews JOKE MUYLWIJK, executive director of Gender and Water Alliance

ISTANBUL, Mar 21 2009 (IPS) - Climate change and corrupt practices are considered root causes for a potential water crisis of global proportions, leading to scarcity where water is needed most and flooding where it is needed the least.

Joke Muylwijk Credit: Gender and Water Alliance

Joke Muylwijk Credit: Gender and Water Alliance

The victims are unmistakeable: women, often poor and powerless.

The irony is that women know so much about water, but are allowed to say so little about its use and management, says Joke Muylwijk, executive director of the Gender and Water Alliance (GWA), an international NGO crusading for gender equality in water issues with over 1,000 members in some 100 countries.

The gender issue was at the forefront at the World Water Forum (WWF), a gathering of some 30,000 participants in Istanbul Mar. 16-22 that is being described as the biggest event on water so far.

Typically, women from the South were few at the Forum dominated by “men in black suits”, as Muylwijk calls it, leaving it to her and a host of other NGOs from the North to speak up for gender equality. In between the lobbying, the Dutch-born Muylwijk spoke to IPS Correspondent Hilmi Toros.

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: What stops women from being centre-stage in the water sector? Joke Muylwijk: Many, but the main one is men make the decisions and woman do the work. We need more women at decision levels and men at working level.

IPS: Can it be achieved? JM: Not right away, but it could get worse if we don’t keep trying. We need to go step-by-step, beginning with awareness, training and then empowerment. Success cannot be taken for granted. If access to water gets better in one place, we have to make sure it remains so. Otherwise, things slide back.

IPS: Any bright spots and good practices? JM: Some. Bangladesh is a good example. Women form groups and approach decision-makers together to make demands. In places like Brazil, Bolivia, Kenya and Mexico, gender groups have managed to bring forth the need to look at women’s special needs.

IPS: Such as? JM: Women have special needs in sanitation. It no longer is a taboo – nor should it be – that we openly discuss that women need special toilets because, unlike men, they can’t just go to the field. Even if they do, they become vulnerable to sexual assaults. Some women drink less water so as not to go to the toilet unless a clean and safe one is available. Also reproductive organs are vulnerable to dirty water. Some girls actually drop out of school because of lack of adequate toilets.

After childbirth, you need clean water but lack of it still kills so many in the 21st century. It comes from misunderstanding women’s special health needs.

The encouraging thing is that we are publicly discussing women’s special needs. It’s a big and positive change. Even our prince (Crown Prince W?llem-Alexander of The Netherlands, who was at the Istanbul-Forum) publicly talks about the need for special toilets for women.

IPS: What is another major problem apart from sanitation? JM: It’s in supply. Tap water in cities is of dubious quality. When women queue for water at collection points, they are often pushed away by males who get an extra share and sell it, at times to women at higher prices.

In rural areas, women are in charge of supply. That’s in addition to being a housewife, mother and farmer. Demand for sexual favours and rape are not uncommon on the way to fetching water or at water points. Women feel they can’t return home without water. Once raped, a girl cannot marry. She is forced into prostitution. Police protection is rare. Women should go together and don’t leave girls alone.

IPS: Are you optimistic about the future? JM: Let’s be realistic rather than optimistic. Compared to five years ago, women’s special needs are being discussed publicly. The trend is there for better comprehension, but it won’t come about without constant vigilance. There are power relations. There is widespread corruption. It is entrenched. Corrupt people do not yet realise that by pocketing money and harassing women, they are ruining lives and contributing to the death of children. More children die from water related issues than any other ones.

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