Nepali Women at the Forefront of Improving Community Water, Sanitation Services

ADB-supported initiatives helped provide 2.7 million people with access to clean water supply in Nepal.
ADB-supported initiatives helped provide 2.7 million people with access to clean water supply in Nepal.

By Suman Subba

We helped women in Nepal stop being seen as mere water fetchers, and empowered them to become true leaders within their communities.

In Nepal, women and girls are the primary collectors, transporters and managers of the household water supply. Water sources in many areas are located far from their houses, and although the situation has improved over the last decade, women in remote rural areas must walk for 4-5 hours just to fetch water.

Women are also responsible for family hygiene and sanitation in villages where houses often lack toilets and open defecation is practiced, making residents—and especially children—susceptible to water-borne and sanitation related diseases. Women’s exclusion from community resource management and decision-making processes has pinned them for a long time in this harsh condition.

In 2003, women in Nepal grabbed the opportunity to change their situation with the implementation of the ADB-supported Community-Based Water Supply and Sanitation Sector Project. They participated in committees on water and sanitation set up by the Department of Water Supply and Sewerage, and positioned themselves on the frontlines of improving water supply, sanitation and community health services in their villages. They helped select sites for water and sanitation structures; assumed leadership roles for the construction of family latrines, maintenance of water pipes, checking of water quality and collection of water revenues from the users; and ensured regular monitoring and technical support from the government.

However, in the beginning women could not initiate activities on their own because men were not confident in their ability to assume leadership roles. Women took this as a challenge, and moved forward with full dedication and commitment. They attended training sessions to learn more about how to pick project locations, design water taps, set water rates, maintain systems, keep books and accounts, and health and sanitation in general. The training did not only give the women the expertise to perform leadership roles, but also strengthened their self-confidence. They made their contributions visible. And after witnessing women’s success, men began to recognize women’s leadership capacity.

One of the key features of the project that facilitated the involvement of women and other disadvantaged groups was gender, caste and ethnicity-responsive criteria to identify and address constraints, ensure participation in all processes, and measure performance.

Another success was the NGO-facilitated, community-based, demand-driven participatory approach so women were able to identify and prioritize their specific needs, as well as design and implement their water supply and sanitation subprojects.

These features helped us overcome many obstacles since the program started 13 years ago, and here a few lessons we learned along the way that we will keep in mind in future similar projects:

  • Community-driven development approach is effective in identifying and honing committed, dedicated and capable community leaders, both women and men; and the examples of these leaders facilitate the active participation of the wider community and can serve as mechanism for the sustainability of community development project results.
  • To ensure meaningful participation of women in leadership positions, representation quota should be mandatory and supported by capacity building for marginalized groups such as ethnic minorities or the Dalit caste.
  • Training enables women to do some jobs traditionally reserved for men, but for women to ably perform these jobs, they need an accepting and encouraging community and an enabling work environment.
  • Income-generating activities must become part of the training for very poor and disadvantaged communities so they can afford to participate.
  • Health and sanitation awareness programs should include men and boys to encourage them to share the responsibility in family care and sanitation.
  • A change in attitudes of both women and men is crucial to boost women’s empowerment and transform gender relations.
  • To sustain project results, we must establish institutional structures and mechanisms for mainstreaming gender and social inclusion into our operations.

As everyone knows, Nepal is still recovering from last April’s devastating earthquake. But in the aftermath of a disaster, our lessons learned still apply. To help the country get back on its feet after the tragedy, women and other disadvantaged groups must position themselves at the forefront of improving water supply and sanitation services. It may seem like a small step, but one that helps stop being seen as mere water fetchers, and empower them to become true leaders within their communities.