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Bringing a Focus to Women and Girls: Challenges and Contributions to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

Women Caretakers of Water and Sanitation Facilities: Leading by Example (Mempeaseam, Western Region)

Maame Esi Duma is a mother, a wife, a farmer and a custodian in her community. At 56 years of age, she has given birth to nine children, seven of which are still living. She has lived in the Fanti community of Mempeaseam, in the Bia District of Ghana’s Western Region, for nearly 40 years. She came to the community in 1974 after she married her husband, and today, they live together and farm cocoa.

Mempeaseam is a small rural farming community with a population of about 500 people. When GWASH staff first visited the community, they found that the majority of the people relied on the nearby stream for their drinking and household needs. The community has two hand-dug wells, one dug by the community itself and another by a local cocoa-buying company. While both wells were closer to the community than the stream, one well has become spoilt over time. The other well, which still functions, emits a bad smell. Many people were using the stream exclusively for their drinking and household needs, while some still sourced water from the functioning well.

In Mempeaseam, women’s everyday management, operation and maintenance responsibilities include fetching water and regular cleaning of the well and the community’s latrines. On average, the women walk 15 minutes to fetch water and climb hills before they finally reach the stream. They regularly clear the path to the well to prevent overgrown bush, the area immediately surrounding the well, and the well itself.

The women in this community have faced a number of challenges when it comes to water and sanitation issues.  For example, the community has a public latrine  designed for public use, where five people can visit or use it at the same time. The women had no privacy when visiting the latrine. During the dry season, there was not enough water for household chores.

The GWASH Project is providing one borehole, a 4-seater KVIP latrine and household latrines to the people of Mempeaseam. The people have begun using the borehole. They can use it for potable drinking water and household activities, and the project is encouraging everyone to fetch water from the borehole. They are also using the latrine, which is divided into two sides: It has two stalls on one side for men and boys, and two stalls on other side for women and girls. This side also has a changing room. So now, women and girls hae more privacy. The project is also working with 20 households to build individual household latrines; this is ongoing.

On the day the project staff first met Maame Esi, Behavior Change Communications (BCC) Agent Anita Agyei was facilitating the formation of the watsan committee in the community. The committee looks after the facilities provided, and it promotes hygiene education in the community. A watsan committee is comprised of about seven members, and the project requires a minimum of 30 percent female representation. These female representatives join nominated members from other various community groups, including male leadership and opinion leaders.

In this session, the community came together and the women were to choose two of their own to represent the women folk. The community’s women’s leader was to be an automatic member, but the women needed to collectively nominate a second woman to serve on the watsan committee. The project had asked the women to meet in advance to select their representatives. Although they had met, the women had been afraid to mention someone, so no one was elected. When it came out that the women had met but couldn’t elect anyone, the opinion leaders said they should have a separate, 15-minute meeting while the men waited for them.

Again, the women met, but they still couldn’t elect anyone. Ms. Agyei described the situation: “No one wanted to voluntarily come out to nominate someone,” she said. “Everyone wanted someone to go and do it, but that person might not do the work in the end. Also, each person was afraid that if she nominated one woman, another woman would ask why she had not been nominated. So there were these two issues.”

The women asked the opinion leaders to elect any one of them to represent the women, but the opinion leaders refused. The leaders said the women should elect someone. By this time, the indecision was delaying the meeting.

A young boy by the name of Kwabena Dankwa was standing beside the BCC Agent, Ms. Agyei. He asked her, “Madam, can I elect someone to represent the women if they are refusing to choose one?”

Ms. Agyei asked the community and they said yes, he could do so. He opened his mouth and mentioned Maame Esi Duma. As Ms. Agyei recalled, everyone present for the meeting started clapping for the boy, saying that he had made a good choice for them.

“Why among all women, including your own mother, did you mention this woman’s name?” Ms. Agyei asked Kwabena.

“She does all the water and sanitation-related issues in the community,” he replied. “Especially those that are communally-owned, the latrine and hand-dug well.”

Community Custodian to Community Leader

Today, Maame Esi is one of three female members on the watsan committee. According to Ms. Agyei, Maame Esi has been present in all trainings for the group. Although she is a quiet person, on her own she prompts those she finds doing unhygienic things in the community. She teaches them the right way, from the unhygienic practice to the hygienic one, Ms. Agyei said.

According to Maame Esi, her major challenge now is how to gather the people for communal work. Her new approach is to inform the women’s leader (who is also a watsan committee member) of anything that requires communal labor, especially for WASH promotion in the community.

In turn, the community appreciates Maame Esi’s work. Ms. Agyei recalled  a community member once saying that if all women in Mempeaseam were like Maame Esi, especially on water and sanitation issues, the world would give an award to the community. Another said that when the women hear Maame Esi wants to undertake a community activity, every woman comes to support out of respect for Maame Esi.

A Role Model in Her Community

When Ms. Agyei asked Maame Esi about her motivation, Maame Esi said she believes keeping her environment clean tells people who she is. She said this should relate not only to her home, but also to her community of Mempeaseam. She said she believes in being neat, that even being spiritual shouldn’t just be about the clothes one wears to church, but also in the environment in which one lives.

“My biggest responsibility is to make sure that my community and our water and sanitation facilities are as clean as possible,” Maame Esi told Ms. Agyei.

“Maame Esi is a role model for most of the women folk in the community and even for the men,” David Arthur, the watsan committee chairman of Mempeaseam, told Ms. Agyei. When someone visits the water facility site and finds out that the place is dirty, the person’s first concern is whether Maame Esi has travelled or is sick. “Because if she is well and in the community, she will make sure that the place is clean,” he said.

Mr. Arthur concluded by saying, “What I have learned from this woman is that keeping the community clean is everybody’s responsibility, no matter how small your contribution will be.”

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