Women of WaSH: Who We Are

On this year’s International Women’s Day, we celebrate and salute all of the girls, women, and allies who are working to reach gender equity through access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WaSH). Globally, we know that the water crisis disproportionately affects women and girls. Girls under the age of 15 are twice as likely as boys to be the family member responsible for fetching water. The time they spend fetching water takes them out of school, away from their other pursuits, and often prevents them from living up to their full potential.

When half of the population has to focus on fetching water above all else, we all lose out on the contributions these girls and women might make if they had the time or energy.

Women and girls are also put at risk when they lack access to safe and sufficient sanitation facilities. They are made vulnerable when walking long distances to isolated toilets or open defecation sites, and they face additional risks from these sites’ poor hygiene. Women and girls experiencing menstruation, pregnancy, or raising children require particular hygiene needs that a lack of water only exacerbates.

Women’s issues are everyone’s issues, and women’s rights are human rights. Access to safe and reliable water, sanitation, and hygiene is no exception.

So who are the women of WasH?

They are our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, friends, and neighbors.

They are our bosses, leaders, colleagues, community organizers, and elected officials.

They are scientists, engineers, students, teachers, readers, and writers.

They are makers, doers, believers, dreamers, and champions.

They are me, you, or someone you know.

They are half of the population, and they will be seen and heard.

They are ready to make gender equity – and every right associated with it – a reality.

Are you?

To join us in the challenge to make equal access to water, sanitation, and hygiene a reality, click here.

No more stress during the dry season

At a time like this in previous years, Masaani community members would be stressed out due to water scarcity as a result of the lingering drought. In this region of Southeastern Kenya, dry spells are increasingly common due to the effect of climate change on the region.

However, in the past year, such concerns have never come to a head thanks to the sand dam and hand-dug shallow well systems they constructed over the past 3 years.

Their water sources have been providing plenty of clean water to the residents throughout the year. The water is fresh and very sweet for drinking, say community members.

We worked with the Kiluta Sand Dam Self-Help Group over 3 years to complete 3 sand dam and hand-dug well projects. For more than a decade, the dedicated members of this group have worked to collectively improve their lives. When we started working with them, people in this community traveled more than 3 miles to get water each day – a journey that took up to 5 hours between the walk and the time it took to get water.

“My mother would send me and my younger siblings to fetch water for bathing and washing my uniforms after school. The distance was too long and we would get really exhausted. At times, we would hide and not bathe or wash our uniforms,” said 7-year-old Mwendi.

Getting water at the scoop hole

Now, that is a problem of the past. The time expended in pursuit of water is now channeled to other, income-generating activities such as farming and businesses. For Mwendi, it means more time to be with her friends.

“Now that the distance has reduced and I enjoy fetching water, I also have time to play after school, do my homework, and catch up with my friends,” she said.

Mwendi drinks water from the well

Easy access to clean water has helped to transform this community. The availability of water has sustained a green and serene environment. Community members now engage in farming vegetables such as kale, spinach, tomatoes, green peppers, and coriander, which was a rare practice before.

“These days I perform my house chores very fast and I can also manage to farm and sell some products from my farm. Thanks to this project, I can sustain a living and meet most of my needs through the money I earn,” said Veronica Musaa.

Gardens thrive near the dam

On the day of our visit, our field staff met Kwame Martin and his brother Baraka Martin, watering their father’s vegetables which had been planted adjacent to the dam source. The 2 boys were very excited about the chore.

The availability of water has also resulted in improved hygiene and sanitation in their homesteads because the community members now bathe daily, have tippy taps erected outside their latrines for handwashing, and have nicely constructed latrine structures.

“I am very happy about this project because it has made my life easier,” said Mrs. Musaa.

Breaking “The Water Curse” One Spring at a Time

Before protection, Imbwaga Spring was believed to be cursed water. It was a small, muddy pool of water open to contamination from animals and people in the village of Bumira, Kenya. The 210 people who depend on this spring knew the water was unsafe to drink, but they could not afford to treat it. It was too expensive to use firewood for boiling the water, and other technologies like WaterGuard were financially out of the question. So many people were constantly sick from the spring water that the local health center had a waiting list for water-related disease treatments.

Still, community members had no choice but to drink it.

A woman fetches water at unprotected Imbwaga Spring

Imbwaga Spring’s contamination extended beyond the water’s edge, however. When we went to conduct our hygiene and sanitation training with community members at Imbwaga Spring while it was under construction, we noticed 2 women with small children aged 3 -5 months sitting 100 meters away from the training site. When the facilitator beckoned them to join the rest of the team, the 2 women shouted at the top of their voices, “We cannot come here at the spring, our children will be infected!”

“The water curse” infected the air around the spring, and it was thought that the area was particularly unsafe when the sun was absent. This included nighttime, cloudy days, and when the spring sat in the shade. The sun, people had heard, chased away the curse.

Foreground: Facilitator Amos leads a dental hygiene session during training; Background: 2 women with their children refused to come closer to the spring’s shade during training due to “the water curse”

The facilitator probed them about what kind of infection and they responded that their water had been discharging a bad infection called in the local language “Muyaka”. The community members believed that since the spring was unprotected, it had always discharged bad air in the form of infections and when a baby was infected, they believed no amount of treatment could cure the infection. In most cases, the child would pass on within a few hours.

The signs and symptoms included diarrhea, fever, and vomiting – some of the most common symptoms of waterborne diseases such as giardia, cholera, and typhoid, contracted not through the air but by consuming the water.

Since the curse was believed to be heightened at night, no one would approach the spring until after sunrise, no matter the cost of waking up without water. During the construction period, our artisan would wake up early and go to the spring to do some curing of the cement before he returned to his host family to take breakfast each day. On the second day when he came back from the spring, his host inquired where he came from and he stated, “From curing the spring.”

The host cautioned the artisan against going to the spring early in the morning as the curse would befall the family that was hosting him. The unskilled laborers who assisted the artisan and who lived in Bumira, on the other hand, would not come to the spring before the sun rose each day.

Community members confidently celebrate protected Imbwaga Spring, breaking “the water curse”

But on the final day of construction when the spring was completed, everyone confidently came to the spring and they started celebrating while singing that the Lord had done a great thing by sending the curse away when the spring was covered, for they believed the curse had also been buried forever. The occasion was full of pomp and circumstance, including singing and dancing.

The joy within this community was overwhelming; to them, they were celebrating freedom from diseases and from “the water curse”.

Thumbs up and smiles at the spring

“Truly, the protection of Imbwaga Spring is really a good omen in this community,” said Karen Maruti, the lead Field Officer for this project. Community members agreed.

“To me, it’s an answered prayer because women in this community feared coming down to the spring for fear of being affected by the water curse. If we had no water for making breakfast, we had to wait till the sun rose as it is believed the sun’s rays kill the curse. At times when the sun did not rise, we would stay hungry,” reflected a primary school student from the community, Maurine.

“Thanks for protecting our spring. I can now come down at any time without fear. Life will be sweet as I can finish my chores on time and go play with my friends or read,” she said.

Children play in the water at protected Imbwaga Spring

To see more photos and read about Bumira Community and the Imbwaga Spring project, click here.

AIC Mbau Secondary School is thriving, thanks to its rainwater tank

Two years ago, AIC Mbau Secondary School in Southeast Kenya was struggling to raise the money needed to ensure its students had access to water every day. Today, it is spending its resources trying to expand school programs because it no longer has to worry about water.

In the past, the school administration at the school did what they could to alleviate the water crisis for their students. They raised money to purchase a plastic water tank, but since it is so small it could not support the more than 182 students at the school – especially during the dry season. At best, the tank lasted 2 weeks before running dry.

It forced students to turn to the seasonal Tyaa River for water.

People fetch water at the Tyaa River

The water point is shared by the community members and livestock who often pass through the river in search of drinking water after grazing in the field. This led students to miss class time and exposed the students to drinking contaminated water.

But that is a problem of the past. More than a year ago we partnered with the school to construct a 104,000-liter rainwater harvesting tank. Students do not have to go to fetch water from the scoop holes anymore. They can get it directly from the tank!

“The water tank project has enabled us to have unlimited access to clean water while in school – something which had never happened before as there were numerous water challenges,” said 13-year-old student Esther.

Students at their tank shortly after it was constructed

“The availability of clean water in school has created a conducive learning environment for the school and everyone is happy.”

The school community is no longer buying water from boozers and local vendors as the water tank has been providing for all water needs ranging from cooking, cleaning, and watering trees.

“The problem of [a] water shortage within our school has been completely solved by the implementation of this water tank which has been providing us with enough water for the last year,” said Deputy Principal John Mbuto.

“Money which was initially spent on buying water is now being saved and will be channeled towards academic-related activities such as the construction of new classes and equipping of the library and laboratory.”

Fetching water from the tank a year later

The school laboratory now enjoys a constant supply of water which is aiding in conducting experiments and cleaning of lab apparatus.

A handwashing culture has developed among students after the hygiene and sanitation training and also the availability of unlimited water, which is aiding in the washing of hands before meals and after visiting latrines.