Advancing African water sector action on gender diversity

Annabell Waititu © IWA

The winner of the IWA 2022 Gender and Diversity Award, Annabell Waititu, tells Erika Yarrow-Soden how Big Five Africa is helping water companies in Kenya tackle gender diversity.

Founding partner and vice president of programmes at Big Five Africa (BfA), Annabell Waititu, is passionate about improving the inclusivity of the water sector and helping the sector to better support women and girls.

Registered in 2014, BfA is a leader in sustainable economic development and development finance in East Africa. Empowering stakeholders, BfA provides information, technology and innovation to optimise service delivery through good governance, gender mainstreaming, and performance improvement plans. Working with the water sector, Waititu has successfully demonstrated that, by listening to women, services can be transformed to the benefit of both customers and the utility.

Waititu says: “The issue is two-fold. We are trying to address gender inequality in terms of access to services, and in terms of the sector’s ability to facilitate women in the workplace. Women face multiple challenges and the majority of these are invisible. We don’t do enough to find out why women are not accessing services or entering the water sector.”

BfA has found that the water sector is largely considered a male environment, particularly when it comes to technical roles. “This attitude is expressed by both men and women. There are social and cultural barriers due to gender assigned roles. There is the idea that women are not decision-makers and are not technical. This begins with education, where very early on women are told that technical jobs are for men. This impacts the studies that women undertake. Women are not studying water science and science is considered a subject for men. There is a need to deal with mindsets within organisations and within individuals so that we can give women the space they need to grow their careers in an atmosphere that is suited to them.

“There are institutional and cultural barriers that hinder women in the sector. From talking to women, we have found there is a culture that doesn’t respond well to women competing with men. And women are told that certain jobs aren’t suitable for them.

“Women are told that, because they have responsibilities at home, they can’t do jobs that require them to travel. The demands placed on employees who have reached senior level can be inflexible and insensitive to the dual responsibilities that women have at home and at work. This is preventing women from developing their careers in the sector.”

Service provision

Male dominance in the sector has meant that water utilities frequently fail to provide women with the services they require. Waititu explains: “When it comes to access to services, there is a whole range of difficulties. For example, in Kenya, to be connected to water services you need to produce a title deed. Only 10% of Kenyan women have a document of ownership, so it becomes very difficult for women to get connected to water services. Land ownership documents are usually in the name of a man in the family – whether it is your husband, your father, or your brothers.

“Organisational reform with regards to gender equality is essential. My work is about helping institutions to embrace gender equality with regards to the employment of women in the water sector and the delivery of service equality.

“This is only possible if institutions are committed to undertaking gender analysis. If you look at the water sector in Kenya, there hasn’t been any gender analysis undertaken by the institutions themselves. It will be another player, like the BfA, who will come to do the gender analysis. So, you see, if they haven’t committed to undertaking the analysis themselves, they are demonstrating a lack of commitment to take responsibility for this issue.”

Waititu believes that gender analysis should be carried out by water utilities every two years to allow them to understand and respond to emerging challenges. She says: “We need to strengthen the capacity of the water industry to conduct gender analysis, but even before this we need them to make a commitment to gender equality mainstreaming.

“In Kenya, we have national policies on gender equality and each sector is supposed to domesticate this, but you’ll find that in the water sector they rarely talk about gender.

“If you talk to water engineers about water, they will not see the gender issues – they say that water is available to both men and women. They don’t recognise the need to create sanitation facilities that are designed for the needs of the user. This has been a major problem.”

Waititu concedes that some progress is being made, helped in part by the decision of the Kenyan Ministry of Education to require water companies to not only provide information on the number of toilets that are in schools, but also the ratio of boys to girls in the school.

“This has helped to change attitudes and perceptions,” she explains. “There is now better training on gender equality for water engineers because it was found that facilities were being built but not used. We were finding toilets that hadn’t been used two years down the line because the users were not willing to use them.

Giving women a voice

“Location is important. Women have told us they didn’t want to use facilities that were built in an open area by the roadside because they didn’t want people to see them going to use a toilet.

“Another aspect is security. If facilities are in areas where women don’t feel safe, they won’t use them. When facilities are being designed, it is important to get women on board. Engineers need to ask them what they need and where they feel safe. Now engineers have started listening and they are beginning to understand that they need to speak to communities.”

Waititu explains that the same dialogue is required before the provision of water services. “It is the women who collect the water. So, engineers need to ask women what they want. For one of the water companies, we went to conduct gender analysis before they planned to install water kiosks. We spoke to the community and the women said they didn’t want a water kiosk – they wanted water plumbed into their individual houses. So, we went back to the water company and asked them not to construct kiosks. They revised their plans and started to think about how they could provide water to individual households. Water companies need to listen to people to ensure they receive adequate access to services and enjoy their right to water.”

Making services count

BfA has developed a strategy that concentrates on the key areas where change is needed. One of these is in the development of new services; another is in the day-to-day operations, where the utility companies interact with the consumer. Waititu explains: “In terms of developing new services, this was about ensuring that new services were tailored to the customers’ needs and that the benefits and opportunities accrue equitably to women and men.

“We supported the water utilities in Kenya, helping them to come up with a tutelage that would help them to see how they can make sure women are getting involved, that their voices are being heard and that this doesn’t just apply to women, but also to other social groups, so that communities can give their views about what they want in terms of water and sanitation services.

“In Kenya, we have been saying for a long time that poor communities cannot afford water. We give them communal water points, where they can go and pay maybe two shillings for water. But you need to really look at the service and take time to understand and ask what does this really cost? Because it’s a big lie to say that these people can’t afford to pay for water, because they pay 10 to 30 times more than the people who are connected to a household connection.

“One of the companies that I work with went to one of the places where they had been providing water through communal points and decided they were going to provide household water connections. The people were happy, and the water utility was able to increase its revenue. By increasing their revenue, the provider was able to invest in services and extend provision to unserved areas.

“You must look at the provision of water from a gender point of view. You need to think about what women must go through when they go to collect water from a communal facility. We did a study and found that some women had to get up at 3am to queue for water. They then must collect it, take it home, and then they must go and start getting ready for work. They do a whole day’s work and then, once again, must join a queue for water. There is conflict when people don’t respect each other, and this can cause fights. This takes the dignity of these women and impacts on their self-esteem.”

BfA has conducted some studies and crafted guidelines on how water companies can include gender in the delivery of their services. “You need to know how your day-to-day operations affect women, positively or negatively, and how this impacts wider society. These operations include connecting people to services (and disconnecting them if that is required), communications, and assessing why this activity is not tailored to everyone.

“We found that people weren’t interested in water companies’ communications because they didn’t feel their needs were being addressed. So, we looked at how we could help the water utilities to begin to understand what the various obstacles were. Why aren’t some social groups getting access to information? Why are people not getting the customer care they need? Why are people not willing to pay for their services? We looked to see how these obstacles could be removed. For example, could people pay in instalments? How could the utilities respond to problems with poor service delivery?

We looked at institutional capacity. This included looking at the gender issues in the individual organisations’ policies and programmes. We looked at the policies that they had and asked to what extent they promoted gender equality. Were they creating an environment that did not tolerate violence or abuse against the rights of women? There were so many things that hindered the water utilities in addressing these obstacles. We looked at how water utilities could create an enabling environment for women.

Supporting women in the workplace

“We looked at how we could get women into leadership, and how we could get them working in technical roles. We found that some women had studied technical courses, but hadn’t gone into technical roles because of the culture of the organisation. We suggested that the utility companies provide courses to support women in gaining the skills that they needed. Some even paid for women to learn to ride a motorcycle so they could do meter reading.

“Before, there was the perception that women couldn’t do these jobs – that it wouldn’t be fair for them. These perceptions began to change.”

Waititu concludes: “When you have change management and training on gender you can see a lot of difference in the way the men in these institutions behave. You need to give men the opportunity to grow and develop themselves. Training women and men on gender equality is very important, and we are finding that organisations are becoming more supportive of this.”