Sex for water, the new avenue for corruption in the WASH sector.
The fight for gender equality in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector in Africa cannot be mentioned without the name of Sareen Malik coming up. She is effectively the most prominent WASH advocate on the African continent who has greatly helped in shifting the power dynamics that existed. In an exclusive interview with Vice Versa Global, Sareen opens the lid on an emerging phenomenon that is stripping women and girls of their dignity.
Text by: Eunice Mwaura and Nicera Kimani
Sareen Malik sits as the Executive Director of the African Civil Society Network on Water (ANEW), an umbrella organization of water and sanitation NGOs in over fifty African countries. With over fifteen years of expertise in water governance and reorganizing WASH NGOs, she has contributed immensely to the sector. Her focus is on assisting NGOs to meaningfully engage in the water and anti-corruption sectors, and mobilizing voices around the call to action that good water governance is critical to improved sector performance.
We meet her at the Ikigai, a beautifully designed co-working space in a commercial building at the heart of Nairobi,we settle in one of the several office spaces available. It is a serene place to evaluate the current state of affairs with a woman whose contribution to the WASH sector has raised the alarm on the need for essential reforms that leave no one behind.
‘We are not there yet in terms of right to water, sanitation and hygiene. There is still a lot of work to do, now more than ever, because of the effects of climate change,’ she asserts. She follows this with an analysis of what is currently happening, especially in the Global South.
‘Water is a daily struggle for women and girls coming from low-income background communities. We are still in a deeply gendered society where the onus of roles is attributed to women. In a majority of households, women have been designated as the main water providers. On average they have to walk approximately four miles a day, just to fetch water for their daily needs.
‘This exposes them to all sorts of vulnerabilities, especially sexual and gender based violence. In some instances, they go home empty handed after finding the wells have dried up. It is such roles that have given rise to another avenue for corruption, but this time, money is not the currency of bribe.’
She brings out a clearer perspective of the daily struggle which women and girls go through, describing an occasion where she had to line up for three hours at a water point in one of the urban informal settlements in Nairobi Kenya. She wanted to analyse how long, on average, women and girls take to access water. Even though she was there by 5 am, she still found a long queue of women with jerry cans waiting for their turn. Some might have walked for miles to get there; others were young girls who probably got late to school because that water is needed at home.
There have also been cases of some not having money to purchase it, even after queuing for long hours, which is also another challenge. Whoever pays the piper, plays the tune and in this case whoever controls the resource, calls the shots. Women have been made to trade sex for water, a survival tactic they had to employ so they can acquire this precious resource.
What do you see happening in relation to water and sanitation in different areas?
‘The WASH sector holds very strong gender dynamics. Six years ago in Kibera and Mukuru informal settlements, we found that women were trading sex for water because the burden of fetching water is on them. We then conducted a study that was geared towards making sure that we put this issue out there,’ she says.
Sextortion or sexploitation is not a new phenomenon in the WASH sector in Kenya. It is a price women and girls pay to access their fundamental basic rights like fetching water, using public latrine, or accessing menstrual hygiene supplies.
For girls, appropriate WASH facilities are an important part in ensuring their safety and health. The facilities have both a push and pull factor towards their education. They struggle to attend school if they do not have access to safe and hygienic facilities, and within close proximity. This is essential in managing their menstrual hygiene. Some have been exposed to sexual and gender based violence, resulting in them dropping out of school.
‘We are trying to do the work at the community level. The WASH sector is putting up a safe space, which will have counsellors and doctors, where victims and survivors will get treatment and counselling after such occurrences. But it is complicated especially when the laws are not in place. Our policies are not yet responsive since women are still being assaulted and asked for sex because they can’t afford water,’ she says. She hopes that a recent meeting with the Kenya Law Reform Commission, in the Attorney General’s office, will bear fruit and an amendment bill to the Sexual Offence Act to include sextortion will be formulated.
Her experiences with the climate crisis in Africa and how it has affected WASH?
‘Water scarcity, caused by climate change, has led to its increased demand. Water sources, including boreholes and springs, are drying up. The result is an inequitable access, which deprives homes of the opportunity to collect the water required for regular hygiene. This has serious health outcomes, with menstrual hygiene management for women becoming an issue.
‘In the Horn of Africa, camels have been dying because of lack of water, demonstrating how severe the situation is. The search for water has seen a mass exodus towards urban centres, putting even more pressure on the existing systems, which subsequently leads to a rise in the level of conflicts at the existing water points.
‘A couple of months ago, we managed to get women community members from Mali, in the middle of the Water Week, to come and speak about their challenges. Their accounts dominated the entire session but we were more than happy to have their voices being heard at that level. They informed us that as a result of the shrinking water spots due to climate change, their lives had become more difficult. They are now more exposed to assault and other forms of violence in their quest to find water. There is also an effect on their health since carrying a jerry can for hours on end is bound to have serious implications.
‘The average person needs one hundred litres of water a day. We are seeing people trying to make do with just twenty litres a day, or even less, due to the cost. This has had an adverse effect on their dignity, so obviously climate change coming in is only going to make things worse.’
Why is it important to tap into indigenous knowledge and solutions?
In her experience, she insists that it is very important for organisations to understand the socialisation of women from the different countries, or else they will not have an impact, which is what gender mainstreaming is about. Using a targeted approach, for example, it is easier to engage women in their group circles when they come together for economic empowerment.
‘Having them give you their time can be very difficult as they are responsible for most household duties. Most of the meetings we had happened during the weekends. They also can’t be too long as this will be telling them to drop everything to come and sit. During some of the pre-conferences we held, I noticed that some women never spoke, only the men did. So what we would do was to have a meeting with the women first. Unless this is understood, then all the efforts put in will not yield any fruits.
‘A woman centred approach is the rights based approach. It is a huge shift in terms of policies and the way systems are currently built. It places women at the centre of how systems and facilities are built and designed to respond to certain segments of society like girls, children and people with disabilities.
‘Societies where women are not protected are the ones that are not advancing. One of the initiatives we have been pushing for, is for women to be at the point of sale since they are rarely the water vendors. Evidence based reports show that water points that are managed by women have few cases of violence and SGBV. So, we encourage them to get involved or be given more chances to be water vendors.
‘It is also the same thing in terms of the setup. Most of them are built through the lenses of a man. A woman would have probably designed it differently. We are trying to advocate for that and are doing so at all levels, from the planning to design, and encouraging more girls to take up the study and get involved in the sector.
‘We have managed to explicitly include women, girls, and people with disabilities; though it required policy trade-off and compromises. It is a huge milestone when big political and continental entities open the space for civil society organisations, because the latter represent voices while governments represent people. We have been working hard to ensure that governments open that space for civil society to come in and table the issues. On the ground, we are seeing more women coming in.’
What are your demands to countries that cause the climate crisis and, for example, what should be done by a country like the Netherlands?
‘For the first time during the Water Week conference we were able to have a woman from the grassroots talk about the situation people in her community go through due to the lack of WASH facilities. Without any filters, she talked of the daily realities they have to go through.
‘More Southern voices need to be amplified. I believe that they are the ones who should sit at the Northern tables in order to really bring the experience home in terms of what is happening; a depiction of how people are suffering and which mitigation efforts are being employed. We are seeing a bit of that shift, with their voices gaining traction in terms of having them speak in the latter’s floors and forums, regardless of whether they are in cabinet or parliament, with support from their global partners.
‘There also needs to be more investments to build the resilience of communities and countries. There is a disempowerment and disenfranchisement that is taking place within communities, whose cause needs to be known. Beyond both the climate and water and sanitation sector, we need to provide the adequate support to build resilience, so that communities can be empowered to tackle these issues head-on.
‘They should be able to sit at the table when decisions are being made and ask the tough questions. However, even the language used is not inclusive enough. It comes off as only reserved for a select few when everything is shrouded in heavy and complicated terms. We need to simplify things so everyone can understand and be sensitized.’
Is there enough budget for the WASH sector?
‘Water is the only Sustainable Development Goal that cuts across all the SDGs, since we need it to achieve all of them. Sadly, the sector is underfunded and is never prioritized by the Kenyan Government. However, global leaders are doing their best through Climate Financing Agenda to make sure governments from the Global South get sufficient funding in the climate sector, which also involves the WASH.
‘Piped water is a luxury in many interior parts of the South, so they have to rely on rivers and drying wells. Sadly, the situation is bound to remain this way. In Kenya for instance, rehabilitation of the water sector costs over three hundred million dollars annually, yet the sector receives less than two hundred million dollars. Wells and rivers are drying up due to high temperatures occasioned by climate change, and the little water available is slowly getting contaminated. This means that women are going to suffer even more.’
Sareen Malik believes that there is hope; if more documentations around WASH are done, and if stakeholders continue to work with vulnerable groups to secure their land rights. ‘My agenda is to see no jerry cans on the streets because without them, we will have empowered more women.’
Planting of trees is also key. She urges more women to get into the climate change agenda for they are the worst affected. ‘Southern voices needs to be amplified. We need to collect and mine the information that will raise their voices.’
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