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Access to safe water as a gateway to women's empowerment

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There is a common saying which says water is life. But for many communities in Malawi, it is not life, it is a death trap. Numerous households, especially from rural areas and in undefined settlements across all cities in Malawi, are facing problems with accessing clean, safe drinking water and improved sanitation and hygiene.

Kazangale is one of the many communities that have benefited from the provision of potable water through the construction of Water Kiosks by the Water Demand Management Project to Mitigate Water Shortages. Kazangale has a population of over 500 people, 50% of them are children. This project is implemented in partnership with Plan International (Plan International the Netherlands and Plan International Malawi), VEI from the Netherlands, The Northern Regional Waterboard in Mzuzu and the Mzuzu City Council. The partnership is funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through the Sustainable Water Fund which enhances public-private partnerships in the water sector in order to improve access to safely managed water and sanitation.

Queuing for water

It was five o'clock in the morning and Charity Zgambo, married to Zebron Ngulube, and a mother of 3(Lyness 10, Innocent 8 and Thokozile 3), from Kazangale village, was already up. She was standing in the queue for water, and she had walked almost a kilometre to fetch water. Five years ago, this was her situation. She had no option but to fetch dirty water from an unprotected source, a shallow well (swamp) that was almost a kilometre from her house. This was her only source of water in their community and the surrounding areas. This unprotected source of water catered for neighbouring communities Mzaza and Kazangale. "We knew the water was not safe for drinking and could cause waterborne diseases. We were really suffering, especially the children. We would spend a lot of time visiting hospitals. The hospital bills were very expensive. Over 50 women were falling ill annually, especially during the rainy season. For children, the number was even bigger: approximately 80 children each year. But we had no other choice until this water communal point was constructed", she explains as she lifts her bucket of water, paving the way for another person.

Greater autonomy

Women in a village such as Kazangale are extremely negatively affected by the lack of access to water as they are responsible for collecting water. With the coming in of water kiosks which are only 50 meters from the house, the situation of division of household chores between women and their husbands has improved because fetching water takes less time. Also, in the past, when we were travelling long distances to fetch water,”. Women are wasting a lot of time away from other economic activities, family and, more importantly, caring for their children. When women have access to clean, safe drinking water, they have enough time to spend on income-generating activities outside their traditional roles and eventually experience greater autonomy. It is a gateway to women's empowerment.

Waterborne disease

Before the construction of the water kiosk, Charity and other women faced a lot of challenges in accessing water. They were always running to and from the stream, where the only source of water was located in a shallow, unprotected well. They had little or no time to devote to income-generating activities that could uplift their families. The prevalence of waterborne diseases was very high. This resulted in high cost of health bills, and it also affected the attendance and performance of children at school. Husbands were not helping their wives to draw water from these unprotected sources, and as a result, the women were overburdened.

Empowered women

Today, Kazangale village has a communal water point constructed by the project. The availability of safe water in the village has empowered women economically. They now have enough time to participate in economic activities and buy water at a modest fee per pail (bucket). In addition, hygiene-related diseases have drastically reduced. On top of that, to ensure that water kiosks are sustainable, they are managed by Water Users Association (WUA) boards. The WUA in Kazangale Village is composed of 13 people, 4 women and 9 men. There is also a general assembly from WUA with 33 members, 20 women and 13 men. It is not common in Kazangale village for women to take up management positions, but with the arrival of the kiosks in the village, women are empowered, and they take part in decision-making. Plan International, as an organisation focusing on gender equity, has engaged the Mzuzu City Council to identify women to be part of the WUAs as well. After being trained, the women feel empowered in their new role as board members since they now have a say in the decision-making processes of the Water Users Association.                                


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