July 3, 2024 Blog

Empowerment Flows Forward: How Women Are Shaping Our Water Future

As we approach the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition 2024, we embark on a journey to explore how water professionals globally have been ‘Shaping Our Water future’ through innovative practices, technologies, and management approaches. Ahead of this transformative event, we took the opportunity to discuss how empowering women through investment has positively impacted the WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) sector. In enlightening interviews with two esteemed African professionals – Dr Najib Bateganya, Deputy Director of WASH at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Dr Barbara Senkwe, Deputy Chief of Party for USAID’S WASH-FIN 2, we explored their experiences and insights. They highlighted the crucial role of women in the WASH domain and emphasised the impact of empowering them to accelerate progress. 

Personal Journeys and Experiences 

Dr Bateganya is clear about the profound impact of female mentorship and leadership in the sector’s workforce. When asked to share his journey and experiences regarding women’s empowerment, he responded: My encounters with remarkable women such as Prof. Nzula Kivuva Kitaka, Dr Rose Kaggwa, Dr Judith Tukahirwa, and Dr Jennifer Musisi have shaped my perspective on the indispensable contributions of women to the sector. Their resilience, leadership, and commitment to driving change have inspired me to actively support and mentor women professionals, recognizing the immense value they bring to the table.” 

Dr Senkwe’s journey in the WASH sector began with an appreciation for the role of women in water: As a young girl I had a profound observation of the struggles faced by women carrying water over long distances in Zambia.” Dr Senkwe, with expertise in urban and regional planning and a strong focus on water supply, noted that observing the impact of balancing productive and care labour helped her understand how accessing these services affects men and women in distinct ways. 

She also emphasised how privileged she felt to have other senior women in the sector mentoring her throughout her career: “My expertise and passion led me to roles in water sector reforms, consultancy, research, and development across eight countries, but this is thanks to the fact that I was mentored by inspiring women such as Wambui Gichuri. I recognise that mentorship and female leadership are incredibly important in shaping the trajectory of women in the sector.” 

Perceived Role of Investment in Women 

For Dr Senkwe, investment in women begins with education and empowerment. When asked how she perceived the role of investment in women within the WASH sector, she emphasised the importance of capacity building and skills training in nontraditional roles. As an example, she mentioned plumbing programmes tailored for girls, which usually opened doors and created opportunities for women in conventionally male-dominated fields. I believe that investing in women not only benefits individuals but also has a multiplier effect on communities, leading to tangible improvements in WASH outcomes and community development.” 

Dr Bateganya recognizes that “Investing in women within the WASH sector yields substantial returns, both professionally and socially.” Women’s involvement ensures more gender-responsive designs, enhances community engagement, fosters innovation, and promotes accountability in resource management and service delivery. By prioritising women’s participation and leadership, the sector can achieve more equitable outcomes and drive positive socioeconomic transformation.” 

Challenges and Solutions 

Despite the progress, significant challenges hinder women’s full participation in the WASH sector. Cultural norms, division of domestic and productive labour, and gender stereotypes pose barriers that must be addressed. According to Dr Bateganya, “A rights-based approach that respects cultural diversity while promoting human dignity and equal rights is a good first step”. He also advises that engaging with male leaders and advocating for principles that prioritise dignity and opportunity can help break down these barriers and create more inclusive environments. 

Dr Senkwe also acknowledges the challenges hindering women’s full participation and leadership in the WASH sector. Her advice to aspiring women in the sector includes continuous learning, accessing resources, finding mentors, and fostering peer-to-peer support networks to navigate challenges and succeed in their careers. Furthermore, she stated: “I advocate for assertiveness tempered with humility, emotional intelligence, and the importance of establishing healthy work-life boundaries.”  

Envisioning the Future 

Looking ahead, Dr Bateganya envisions a future where women’s empowerment in the WASH sector is the norm rather than the exception. He emphasises the importance of continuous investment in women’s education, leadership development, and capacity building. “I fully believe that by fostering inclusive policies and creating supportive environments, the sector can harness the full potential of women and accelerate progress towards achieving universal access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.” 

Dr Senkwe is also optimistic about the future of women’s empowerment in the sector. “With perseverance and support, women will continue to make strides towards equality and leadership.” She emphasises the need for collective action, mentorship, and a commitment to prioritising both professional growth and personal well-being to realize this vision. 

In pursuit of a more equitable and inclusive future within the WASH sector, the stories and insights shared by Dr Najib Bateganya and Dr Barbara Senkwe resonate as guiding beacons. The essential theme of women’s empowerment and its pivotal role in advancing progress in the WASH sector will also be a key discourse at the forthcoming IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition 2024. 

Persis Ramirez

Programme Officer- Diversity, Equity and Inclusion persis.ramirez [a] iwahq.org