Women and water: turning challenges into opportunities

Women and water: turning challenges into opportunities
World Water Week started on August 28th, and it gathered more than 3000 brilliant researchers, innovative implementers and actors interested in the development of the water sector. SI NFGL member and journalist Tony Snizhko from Belarus writes about the event.

World Water Week started on August 28th, and it gathered more than 3000 brilliant researchers, innovative implementers and actors interested in the development of the water sector.

The theme of this year’s World Water Week – sustainable growth – addresses various global goals such as fighting hunger and poverty, building cities, and many others, but it also invites us to take a closer look on the sector itself.

Torgny Holmgren, SIWI Executive Director, marked during his speech on the opening plenary that many changes have already been made:

“I am proud to see a lot of young women who start their careers in the water sector, but we still have a lot of work to do in order to secure true gender equality. I hope this World Water Week will provide space for discussion and solutions related to this issue.”

And, indeed, the venue offered a generous set of seminars and events dedicated to jobs and women’s roles in the water sector. Today more women pursue careers in engineering and scientific research, but their work environment is mostly the same as twenty years ago.

“The main thing to know about jobs in this area is that the higher you get, the harder it gets,” shared Diane D’Arras, Senior Vice President Europe Suez Environment.

As in many other sectors, the water sector still suffers from the glass ceiling and gender segregation. There are vivid examples of women who made it to the top of agencies, but in most cases, as Diane put it, “It’s all about black suits on the stage.”

Talking about visible and paid jobs on the market during recent years, women in the development agenda agreed that they have encountered stereotypes and underestimation almost on an everyday basis. But the situation improved when they started taking their stance against this attitude and showed solidarity with other women.

“We are not the victims – we are agents of changes and we need to remind others about it from time to time.”

However, the relations between women and water go beyond the labour market. As Margot Wallström, Minister of Foreign Affairs, noted, “For women and girls, access to water is a question of dignity, health and time.”

According to the latest SIDA report on women, water, sanitation and hygiene; in rural areas women and girls are the ones who supply the family with water. This invisible physical labour which is usually unrecognized by the community puts women in a position of high dependency on the water source. Without water, women and girls are exposed to health hazards which lead to drop-outs from schools, inability to participate in community, and social exclusion.

One of the key strategies widely discussed at World Water Week in addressing inequality in water access and in the labour market was gender mainstreaming.

Gender mainstreaming analyses the environment, accesses the current gender dynamics, and provides instruments to ensure a gender sensitive approach. Taking into account cultural context as well as the opinions and needs of the women engaged in the labour, one provides women with competences to speak for themselves.

Gender mainstreaming, when applied by various implementers in a region, ensures significant improvement in the situation with social roles, as well and widens perspectives for women and girls to participate in the economy.

As Karin Lexen, SIWI Director, said, “We are able to turn our challenges into opportunity when we are working together.”

Tony Snizhko is a journalist from Belarus who has worked in the field of gender equality. Tony Snizhko is now studying Media and Communications at Stockholm University.