Advancing towards a more gender equal world in transboundary water management in Sub-Saharan Africa

Posted in : on 8 March 2023

Across Sub-Saharan Africa, socially defined gender roles regarding water use, access, and management, and how to shift them to enable more equitable outcomes for women and other vulnerable populations, is the topic I’d like to examine in light of International Women’s Day today, March 8th, 2023.

As a Senior Gender and Social Inclusion (GESI) Expert for the Cooperation in International Waters in Africa (CIWA) Program over the past two years, the program teams and I have made significant efforts to increase the program’s focus on GESI. When I first began, I led the development of the CIWA GESI Framework as a critical first step towards framing the program’s GESI approach. By adopting a transformative approach, the framework continues to encourage CIWA stakeholders to move beyond traditional approaches that position African women as water users, while also stepping away from using simplistic one-off, head count approaches to addressing gender inequalities.

If we want to begin to tackle the deep-seated drivers of gender inequality so that women can operate in an environment where their voice and role are truly accepted, we need to be more ambitious. Share on X This requires adopting cross-sectoral approaches to gender equality that are undertaken at multiple levels and multiple times. To have a lasting impact, we also have to move away from allocating limited funding to gender on a short-term basis.

Tackling gender inequalities in groundwater access

Since there has been limited documentation about gender equality within the transboundary water management context, I worked with CIWA colleagues to develop a series of Learning Notes on the lessons learned about what has worked and not worked in applying a gender lens, including one focused on the Nile Basin Initiative. Overall, I have been encouraged by efforts of CIWA team members to walk the gender talk. This includes taking concrete steps to apply a gender lens to their programming. Since CIWA has a diversity of projects focused on groundwater management, I thought it would be useful to capture some of the strategies put forward in the planning phase to tackle gender inequalities related to groundwater, a water source that is emerging as being a critical resource for maintaining people’s livelihoods in Africa. Although groundwater plays a large role in supporting social and economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa, many countries need to ensure that their groundwater resources are managed equitably so that both women and men can derive benefits while ensuring sustainability. Share on X

Paving a path for the professional development of more female hydrogeologists

As the gender expert on the Sahel Groundwater Initiative, I have been able to play a critical role in mainstreaming GESI into all elements of the initiative, as well as ensuring that team members have a good understanding of the initiative’s gender dimensions. From the beginning, I was pleased to learn that the project team was firmly committed to take the bold step of tackling gender as a stand-alone issue. To do so, we found ways to champion women – giving them equal consideration in the initiative’s efforts to develop a cadre of local hydrogeologists. Because the initiative operates in one of the most unequal regions of the world, identifying ways to develop local female hydrogeologists was no small feat. It entailed extensive consultations with people representing local and international organizations and also undertaking research to identify challenges throughout the life cycle of girls’ education – ranging from barriers they face in completing secondary school, identifying ways to tackle stereotypes that discourage them from studying Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects, as well as factoring in ways to create a favorable work environment once they graduate. Moving into its second year of implementation, the initiative is beginning to note good results on gender equality. A roundtable was last year organized in Nouakchott, Mauritania. One discussion topic was improving training options for women in hydrogeology in the Sahel, with a specific focus on inequitable access to academic education. I have also been working with a local gender consultant to consider the barriers and best irrigation options to ensure that women have equal access to groundwater irrigation sources. Share on X

In Southern Africa, I supported the Southern Africa Development Community-Groundwater Management Institute (SADC-GMI) in fully mainstreaming gender considerations in the project preparation phase. It helps that SADC-GMI is one of the pioneering institutions that recognize the importance of gender equality and have made inclusiveness in groundwater management one of its core principles. For example, on the recruitment end, SADC-GMI has tried to offer equal opportunities for male and female students under its Young Professionals Program. While acknowledging a relatively low number of females in middle- and higher-levels of management in the water sector, SADC-GMI has managed to adopt deliberate strategies to involve and benefit women in groundwater management roles. Share on X This includes asking Member States and other stakeholders to nominate women to participate in training events offered by SADC-GMI, as well as developing a GESI Mainstreaming Strategy. In the Sub-Grant Manual, the institute has also sought to ensure that each sub-grant project facilitates women’s participation.

In keeping with SADC-GMI’s commitment to gender equality, CIWA’s support to SADC-GMI includes a focus on diversity in groundwater-related professions, which promotes relevant education and professional development for youth and women. The project plans to tackle social exclusion by tracking the ratio of female participants and direct beneficiaries to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable are included in its activities, as well as integrate gender into its training and knowledge management activities. Overall, CIWA has kept up the momentum generated in the first phase. This includes plans to build the capacity of SADC-GMI and its stakeholders to effectively mainstream GESI principles in all future work. There will also be an opportunity for gender experts like myself to continue to learn from this project, since lessons learned from mainstreaming GESI into groundwater management initiatives will be documented and disseminated.

Identifying opportunities to boost women’s engagement, decision-making, and leadership skills

Moreover, the Horn of Africa Groundwater for Resilience Project was developed in cooperation with the World Bank Water Global Practice gender and community engagement team. In the spirit of cross-fertilization, I had the opportunity to learn from the corporate Gender Tag Process’s (GTP’s) approach to lending projects, which plays a central role in achieving the World Bank’s Gender Strategy 2016-2023. Similar to the Sahel initiative, this project has demonstrated its ambitious focus on gender through the identification of three main gender gaps that relate to women as water users and decision-makers,while identifying concrete actions aimed at addressing the gaps identified.Actions will be measured with concrete time-bound indicators.

The first gap targets women’s traditional role by seeking to overcome the heavy burden rural women and girls bear as main water collectors. To do so, they plan to engage women in the planning and design of infrastructure, while also ensuring that groundwater infrastructure is located close to human settlements so that women and girls spend less time travelling to collect water and are at less risk of Gender-Based Violence. Like many rural women in Sub-Saharan Africa, the second gap acknowledges that women are frequently excluded from decision-making processes at the local level. The project therefore features a plan to support women’s participation in relevant decision-making processes, including training women in leadership development and negotiation skills, promoting the establishment of separate groundwater management meetings, as well as tailoring meeting times to fit women’s schedules. Given women’s low representation in technical and leadership positions at institutions governing groundwater at the local, national, and transboundary levels, the third gap will include an assessment of groundwater agency staff composition, gender awareness training, and leadership and technical training for women agency staff. The gaps identified at the project preparation phase have been instrumental in identifying the targeted actions to addressing the gaps and the related monitoring indicators.

It has been great to have the opportunity to work on mainstreaming GESI in various projects and also to collaborate with other gender experts within the World Bank’s broader sphere, including the Water Global Practice. Although documentation on gender in the transboundary water context is still limited, I see these ongoing collaborations with other gender experts in the World Bank as an opportunity to provide more in-depth technical expertise, while also preparing tools and resources that I hope will help to add to the body of knowledge on gender equality and transboundary water management.

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Author: Ellen Hagerman, Gender and Social Inclusion Consultant, CIWA
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