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Breaking out of traditional gender roles.

Change is taking place in the Upper West region of Ghana.  Just three years since the USAID West Africa Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (USAID WA-WASH) Program began, target communities now have a local clean water source, each household has built its own latrine, and families have saved money to invest in improving their crop production and also to pay for water maintenance, school fees and health insurance.  More importantly, men and women have done it together, something that once seemed unlikely in a place where common marriage negotiations ensure a wife will fetch water, cook, and sweep.  After paying the dowry, men essentially owned their wives.  Today, husbands are helping their wives to carry water and cook meals and wives have become income-earning members of village savings and loan associations (VSLAs), their husbands have given them their own acre of land to farm whatever they think will grow best.  While it is clear that men are still the heads of households, both genders have stepped outside their traditional roles (see Photo).

Participatory processes promoted by USAID WA-WASH ensure that the most affected people are included.  In the case of water, sanitation, and hygiene, women and girls are the most affected.  However, due to traditional roles that place men in control of everything, women are often excluded from participating in solving their own problems as stressed by Issifu Adama,  CARE project manager: “Gender dynamics can either help or hinder a project’s sustainability.  Ghana is made up of 52 percent women.  If that population is excluded, then we have a problem.  Women need to be involved, and in our project area we’ve seen families and entire communities clearly benefit from their involvement.”  In rural Ghana, women and girls spend much of their time simply fetching water for their families.  For women, that time could be applied to income-generating activities; for girls, that time could be spent in school.  Moreover, when there are no household latrines, women have to seek privacy after dark to quickly defecate behind bushes, exposing themselves to roving eyes, harassment and even snake bites.  Such practices had never changed, until now.

Realizing the importance of overcoming gender barriers to women's participation involves identifying and explicitly addressing restrictions faced by women.  A study conducted by USAID WA-WASH through CARE in 10 of 22 project villages revealed a wide range of unmet gender needs.  Women lacked access to potable water and they were harshly blamed when their family didn’t have enough.  They had no toilets.  They were vulnerable to climate change (annual rains starting later and ending sooner) and suffered food shortages that made it difficult to cook for their families.  They lacked access to land and water for gardening.  They faced domestic violence when asking their husbands for money.  They also lagged behind their male counterparts in social standing, respect, sense of dignity, and voice in community life.

The outcomes of the analysis led to the creation of community action plans for mainstreaming gender in the USAID WA-WASH program activities on water and sanitation, climate change, food security and gardening activities.  The goal was to implement a program that truly benefited women and girls over time, providing opportunities to participate, learn, have their voices heard, and share in the long-term work of maintaining WASH facilities and practices.

Brifo Maal, a village of 51 households, was ranked as the worst of the 10 studied at the onset of USAID WA-WASH, in terms of women feeling empowered.  This situation changed since the Program intervention and community members are attesting these changes at different levels.  Augustine Banyonu is a secondary school teacher and assemblyman for Brifo Maal, elected four years ago to serve as his community’s voice in the District Assembly.  Augustine argued that “today, we have united men and women and we created an environment where everyone can express themselves.  Women no longer have a survivalist mentality for water and sanitation.  We now have a borehole for water and we have built our own latrines.  We now have a WatSan committee and VSLAs are mobilized”.

The Brifo Maal community has an action plan to create sustainable change.  Augustine’s 23-year-old younger brother, Douglas, is part of that action plan.  He is one of Program-trained male gender champion in Brifo Maal in charge of organizing community meetings to educate men and women to peacefully live and work together.  The male gender champions are encouraged to set an example for other men and boys to follow.  Per this strategy, Douglas often carries water home with this approach that “everyone should have a better life and this will be possible in a community that has eradicated domestic violence and where men and women share responsibilities. When you empower a woman, you empower a community”.

The Program’s gender advocacy strategy also resulted in 430 women gaining access to plots for gardening in the Uper West region.  Dooseuyir, now in her 50s, is the president of a 29-member women’s VSLA called Nontaa Songtaa (see Photo 2).  She also farms groundnuts, beans, tomatoes and millet, and is the proud owner of goats.  When her husband died in 1989, his land was divided among her four sons.  Two years ago, she finally got her own 1.5 acre parcel.  She atteted her hapiness in the following words: “In the old days, women were not given any land to farm. That is just how it was.  Now we work in the farms and grow healthy food for our families.  Women here are happier.  We go to our savings groups and buy shares.  Water is nearer.  We all have toilets, and open defecation is a thing of the past”.

Times have indeed changed for women who did not have a voice in villages like Brifo Maal.  The narrow dirt walking path from Dooseuyir’s home leads to another VSLA member and cake maker, Tuurima Tierzooli.  Tuurima is the “Queen Mother” of Brifo Maal, a nominated role that started in all villages about three years ago.  She represents all women in Brifo Maal and regularly meets with the village chief and assemblyman to discuss issues and then returns feedback to her constituents.  “I work to ensure all women here have access to land and get their own hoe.  When I hear a woman has not yet gotten land to work for herself, I show their husbands examples of women’s harvests, and that always convinces them” Tuurima says.