UN Human Rights Council Session 18-Geneva
September 21, 2011
Palais des Nations
Paper by Marilee Karl - Co-Founder Isis International, Honorary Chairperson Isis International-Manila Board of Trustees

(presented by her daughter, Alice Foubert-Hagenbach)

Alice Foubert-HagenbachIsis International would like to thank the organizers for inviting us to participate in this panel on women and the right to water. We want to share a few experiences of women in the Isis International network. We are eager to learn from the other organizations here. We hope that together we can strengthen the struggle of women worldwide for the right to water.

Water is not gender neutral

Too much water, not enough water, polluted water, water too far away, water, water all around but not a drop to drink…..whatever the situation, it impacts women and men differently because of gender inequalities that affect all aspects of life. Water is not gender neutral. People and countries experience these water situations in different ways.

Water cannot be seen in isolation. Climate change has an effect on water, including the increasing numbers and intensity of typhoons and the long seasons of drought that are challenging food production and sanitation and causing increased health problems.

The long road behind us and ahead

After many long years of awareness raising, lobbying and negotiations, water and sanitation was finally recognized by the United Nations as a fundamental human right in 2010. Thousands of civil society organizations took part in campaigns at national and international levels to work towards this recognition. Now we are working to make this right a reality.

The nearly universal responsibility of women for the provision of water for family use is now well documented. We now know that the task of collecting water can be very arduous, and that it becomes ever more difficult in conditions of drought, pollution or diversion of water for other uses. This was not always the case.

Slowly awakening to reality

The knowledge of women’s water-related responsibilities and tasks only began to come onto the development agenda in the 1980s, and then only slowly. I remember very clearly the first gender analysis training programme at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in the late 1980s. I was one of the trainers. In order to overcome resistance and convince staff of the usefulness of gender analysis, we had to show that gender analysis would make development projects and programmes more efficient and increase their chances of success. Efficiency was the key word. And water projects were a prime example.

One of the cases used was that of a water project in Mexico: a large development agency implemented a project to provide running water to a number of villages. The agency provided pumps and trained villagers to use and maintain them. A year later, a project team went back to see how things were working out. They found many of the pumps in disrepair. As it turned out, the agency had trained the men in the use and maintenance of the pumps, unaware that the women were the ones responsible for water.

Leaving feminism and rights at the door

Things have changed, but at that time there was no place in gender analysis training to talk about the right to water or the empowerment of women. We were told to leave our feminism and rights orientation at the door for fear of scaring off the participants. Some were aware of the huge burden women bear in collecting water but their suggested solutions were mostly to relieve women of this burden by training men in better technologies for water provision. There was no concept of empowering women through training them in these technologies or even to involve them in decision making about the provision of water.

This attitude has more or less prevailed as we move up the scale from village water projects to water providers associations, large-scale water projects and the controversial issues raised by the increasing privatization of the distribution of water and even of water itself. The connections still need to be made between the right to water, gender inequalities and empowerment of women.

Real-life women and water stories

I would like to share with you some real-life women and water stories that Isis International has published in its magazine, Women in Action (WIA). These stories show the connections of water, climate change and gender inequalities.

Bangladesh – my house under water

Rasheda Begum from Bangladesh is a climate change refugee, also known as a climate change induced forced migrant. Such people are forced to move from their homes into new areas because of the changes in the environment that threaten their livelihoods and homes, such as rising sea levels, lack of water, storms, and flooding. She says:

I used to have a house, about half a kilometer away from the shore in Khudiar Tek in the island Kutubdia. Unfortunately, this was washed away by the devastating cyclone in 1991. My neighbors and I had to move farther to a safer place. So I built a hut beside an embankment that was three kilometers from the shore. Like my neighbors, I have always felt this unexplained horror over the thought of fleeing to an unknown destination. I guess this fear is based on the fact that, unlike men, our movement as women has always been restricted. A man can easily decide what to do and where to live. Society does not permit us to act like a man.

In 2007, we left the island and settled in an urban slum at the outskirts of the sea resort town of Cox's Bazaar. The place severely lacks civic amenities and services. Here we face an even more distressing situation. Every day, I have to think of how to feed my family. My children and I are employed as daily laborers at the local fish processing and drying businesses that are seasonal in nature. This means being in an extremely unhygienic working environment. I am constantly worried for my three grown up daughters because there is no rule of law for the poor, especially for slum dwellers.”

Kenya: where has all the water gone?

Veronica Nzoki has been a resident of Endui in the Mwingi District in eastern Kenya for almost 50 years. She can still remember how the water flowed throughout the year, enabling them to grow food that helped them survive the dry spells. But this is no longer possible. She tells us:

“Crops have failed for the last two seasons and livestock have been starving to death. For the first time, Kiiya Dam, which was constructed by the colonial government more than 50 years ago, dried up completely in 2009. This has never happened before... We (women) leave at six o'clock in the morning to the nearest spring. We find a long queue. By the time we draw water and get back home, it is well past mid-day. This leaves us with no energy for other activities. For those of us with small businesses, we have to close them down or leave them unattended to fetch water for our households and businesses.”

Nepal: dancing for rain

In Nepal, 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas. They rely heavily on agriculture and forest resources, and are immediately affected by climate disasters. Women, who are primarily responsible in providing food and water for the family, are indeed the hardest hit.

Among climatic disasters, the droughts of 2006, 2008 and 2009 left the deepest imprint among Nepal's rural poor. We learned from the women there that during these times, women perform various religious rituals, including the marriage of frogs, with the hope of correcting the unusual weather patterns. The backbreaking tasks demanded by the ceremonies, such as preparing the households, cooking food, hosting people and cleaning are done by women. Moreover, women dance naked to please the god of rain, exhorting him to bring rain showers for their crops. There are no equivalent rituals required from men. Religious guilt over the absence of provisions rests squarely on women.

Women will wait day and night for the rain. Some even start working at night, when the showers pour. While their husbands, children and relatives sleep, the women are awake, straining their ears to catch the first landfall of rain. As soon as they hear the rain drops, they venture out to work the land. While agricultural work is performed by both women and men, it has a gender division of labour. Whereas women's role consists of planting, transplanting, weeding, harvesting, milling as well as the collection of water, firewood and fodder, men plough the fields and market the extra crops for additional income. The men’s job has been made easier with new technologies, such as tractors.

Women barely have enough land to plant their crops. Moreover, their produce is often inadequate to feed their own families…Once this is threatened by droughts and other climatic disasters, their lives hang in balance.

Niger Delta: water and oil

Ayibakuro Warder, a mother of five children, lives in the Niger Delta region. While she is employed in the local government, she remains engaged in fishing and farming to support her family. But much of her time is devoted to activities as a leader of women in her community as well as the whole clan. She says:

As a child near the delta, I remember that my parents used to gather greater harvests from their farming and fishing activities. The sizes of cassava and plantain were incomparable to the present yields. Our fish ponds, lakes and creeks have likewise suffered from incessant oil spills. The people are one in their opinion that the smaller and fewer harvests could only be attributed to pollution coming from the oil extraction activities near the delta...Whenever oil spills happen, not only are the natural resources damaged sometimes beyond repair, but our survival is also undermined. Worse, health problems, especially among our children, arise. With our sources of income gone, we are left confused as to where to seek medical help. Several women also died as a result of oil spills.

In 2007, an oil spill took place. The women of Ikarma lost all the cassava that they soaked in the creek. This has been our tradition in hastening the fermentation process of the cassava as we prepare cassava dough, our staple. The oil spill likewise destroyed the traps that we set for fishing. I then led a women's protest in front of Shell's office at the Kolocreek Logistic Base.

But regardless of the cause of the oil spill, whether because of sabotage or equipment failure, Shell has never found it fair to compensate its victims. Instead, it deploys its military personnel to intimidate the community from airing their grievances.

Women taking action

Women and community based organizations are taking action. Veronica Nzoki, for instance, is chairperson of the Endui Water Users Association in Kenya and, with other women, is demanding that government bring water closer to their homes and enhance water catchment areas. In China, The Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women trains women to take on leadership positions in their own water collectives and manage small water infrastructures. The Women’s Environment Preservation Committee (WEPCO) in Nepal is dedicated to cleaning and conserving the urban environment in the Kathmandu Valley and promotes harvesting of monsoon rainfall to recharge wells and the ground water. The Barefoot College in India has embraced traditional knowledge and skills to harvest rain water to reduce dependency on external aid. Its Village Water Committees have equal representation of women and men. The Community Action for Development (CAD) in Nagpur, Maharashtra, India works with tribal women to revive their traditional community-led water management structures and systems.

Helping women make their voices heard

These stories present two sides of women's reality. On the one hand, women are the most affected by water and climate change crises because of long-standing gender inequalities; yet on the other, they are active agents in addressing immediate and strategic solutions to water and climate change issues. The voices of women need to be heard if women are to claim the right to water, rather than be the unseen and unheard victims of the lack of water or even water resource wars.

Gender is often overlooked in discussions about strategies to solve water issues. Even if women are recognized as mainly responsible for the provision of water at the household level, the dominant perspective is that women are victims or members of vulnerable groups, instead of agents of change, leaders and decision-makers. The increasing involvement of women’s organizations and gender specialists is helping to change this.

Communication strategies

Communication strategies are needed to help women to bring their experiences and views to the fore. Isis International believes that the access and participation of women in communication can contribute to social justice and the empowerment of women in the global south. We are a strong believer in communication as a key to building stronger people’s movements towards climate justice and gender justice, including the right to water.

Our communication strategies and training and capacity building workshops make use of both old and new forms of media and communication tools for information sharing, education, social mobilization and advocacy. Sometimes radio, theatre, video and face-to-face interactions are the most effective for women, particularly in areas where new technologies are not readily available. In other instances, computer, mobile technologies and internet are most effective, especially in trying to reach a wider and broader audience and disseminating information quickly. It is also possible to use both traditional and new technologies, for instance by posting radio plugs and video on websites or circulating them via email. Our experience shows that grassroots women find creative ways to use communications tools to get their messages across.

Activist Schools

Isis International’s work in the field of communications sees women not only as receivers of knowledge but producers as well. This principle is carried out in Isis International’s Activist Schools for Feminist Development Communications, launched in 2010. The Schools aim to strengthen social movements and advocacies through the strategic use of media and information and communication technologies (ICTs). Collaborating with other partners and networks, Isis has conducted five activist schools in the past year on migrant’ rights, women and peace building, gender and climate change, gender-based violence, and young feminist leadership. We are planning activist schools on food security and water.

Isis International welcomes working in partnership and collaboration with other organizations in the developing and conducting of the activist schools. We would also like to continue to collect and publish the voices and experience of women on water issues, in cooperation with other organizations. Together, we can work towards making the right to water a reality for women.

Thank you!



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