It is often assumed that when women are involved in Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) committees, they get more responsibilities and leadership roles, and as a result they empower themselves. Simavi and the Gender and Water Alliance conducted a qualitative case study research to assess if WASH interventions can be instrumental in women empowerment.
The qualitative assessment explains if, how, and why women have empowered themselves in the course of the WASH Alliance Bangladesh programme (2011-2015) implemented by Simavi partners DORP (Development Organisation of Rural Poor) and SLOPB (Stichting Land Ontwikkelings Project).
Factors that enable empowerment
All cases showed that motivation, dedication and hard work of the women themselves led to their empowerment. The WASH-committee or intervention served as a vehicle. Most women, except Ritu (who started from a very poor background), had modest economic backgrounds and educational attainment, so they were in a position to use the opportunities presented to them. Compared to other women around them, they had a relative advantage.
The following factors have influenced the possibility of the women to take the opportunities offered: 1) Motivation, 2) Determination and willingness to work hard without direct (financial) benefit to the woman herself, 3) Education, 4) Encouragement by husband and relatives to be active, 5) Social status within society (good family, profession), 6) Financial situation, 7) Mobility and 8) Talent and leadership skills.
For example, Noorjahan was used to making decisions within the household already due to a hearing problem of her husband. She was already known as a traditional birth-attendant, the reason she was recommended as a volunteer for SLOPB. Another volunteer, Nayanessa, had the support of her husband who encouraged her to become active in the group. Being retired she also had sufficient time to spend on volunteer work. Ritu is the only one among the women in the case studies who did not have a comparative advantage. Her perseverance and attitude seemed the only determining factors for her empowerment.
From the cases, it appeared that the most determining factor for empowerment is the attitude of the woman herself. Programmes and projects can only provide opportunities that women can use to empower themselves, but if opportunities are not used, the project cannot ensure empowerment.
The WASH programme in Bangladesh involved mostly women who volunteered to take part in WASH committees. The projects became successful as volunteers immersed in the project and in the course, empowered themselves. They led the monitoring and implementation of projects and raised health awareness in the communities. The sense of ownership also made them responsible for the upkeep and continuity of the projects. Meanwhile, the WASH programme provided an enabling environment for empowerment of women through the following:
1) Targeting women specifically to become involved in WASH-interventions;
2) Providing knowledge and information on health, sanitation and rights through several techniques: court-yard sessions, training workshops, posters, leaflets and banners, exposure visits, providing a platform to discuss and share this knowledge with others and advocate and claim rights;
3) Providing mentoring and coaching on how to claim rights;
4) Providing tool-kit for birth attendants, Deep Tube Wells (DTW) at a low cost, tools for repair and maintenance of DTW, files and register notebooks, and box for safeguarding the registers;
5) Creating an enabling environment to claim rights, and assist in building linkages.
Recommendations to strengthen the enabling environment for empowerment
The research on gender and empowerment through WASH programmes in Bangladesh revealed that, first, there should be an assessment of the level of empowerment of the women in leadership positions at the beginning of the project as well as towards the end. By targeting women that are in a slightly advanced position to take up the leadership in platforms created by projects and programmes, they will be able to empower themselves further and can manage to increase the respect for women and their capacities in general.
Second, there should be an assessment of physical, economical, political and socio-cultural aspects of empowerment in any WASH-intervention in order to be able to develop specific activities to strengthen limiting elements.
Third, empowered women should be encouraged to mentor one or more successors. Fourth, it is recommended to develop an exit strategy together with the local people, on how to ensure the results obtained and how to continue without external support. For example, some of the empowered women used their new positions in their local councils to access funds from the government to continue the programme they started. On the other hand, a number of WASH committees stopped meeting and members withdrew their contributions fearing that the project won’t no longer function without external support.
Lastly, empowerment is a process that takes time. Often the time-frame of empowerment programmes is too short. Therefore involved local organisations should look for opportunities to continue the empowerment process either with their own resources or by linking to other programmes. Simavi will take the recommendations into account in future WASH programming.