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Editor’s Note: This guest post was authored by Shalini Nataraj, director of advocacy and partnerships at Global Fund for Women. Shalini discusses why it is important to address human rights, specifically women’s rights, on the local level to determine context-specific and appropriate WASH solutions. She also highlights the work of three Global Fund grantees based in Vietnam and Kenya who serve as examples of organizations successfully tackling these issues. 

Participant at Global Fund convening in Kenya learning about indigenous plants and organic farming methods. Credit: Global Fund for Women / Margaret Youngs

Participant at Global Fund convening in Kenya learning about indigenous plants and organic farming methods. Credit: Global Fund for Women / Margaret Youngs

A well is a well, right? As a funder, you fund the digging of a well for a community that lacks access to clean water, and the hoped-for outcome is that the problem is now solved. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, it is not so simple. The well’s location might make women more vulnerable to sexual assault, for example. 

As a funder, Global Fund for Women supports organizations that seek to address access to water as a fundamental human rights issue. These organizations address the inequities, and ensure that the rights of the local women are respected.

In July 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations and the Human Rights Council formally adopted a resolution calling on States and international organizations to provide financial resources, build capacity, and transfer technology, particularly to developing countries, and to provide safe, clean, accessible, and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all. While this recognition of the human right to water is based on many legal principles, what does ensuring the right to water look like at the local level?

Unless those of us who fund WASH understand that access to water is fundamentally about power relations and systemic societal inequities, with national priorities often working in favor of the powerful and wealthy, funding access to clean water and sanitation is going to be piecemeal and unsustainable.

The first question that needs to be answered is, “Who benefits?” The answer is not simple. In answering that question, the conceptual framework of the human right to water can challenge the underlying structural inequalities plaguing the poor and powerless communities around the world who lack access to water. It offers these communities the tools and arguments to hold the State accountable for implementing its human rights obligations, and to demand that the basic needs of the communities are met over the wishes of the few who have the power and money. It is about funding a range of strategies and interventions that create the enabling context for sustainable WASH programs.

Global Fund prioritizes funding women-led organizations that not only seek to address the immediate needs of communities, but also advocate for the rights of communities. We enable women to access the training and tools to advocate on their own behalf.

Global Fund grantee, Center for Water Resources Conservation and Development (WARECOD), in Vietnam, operates projects to improve water access in several poor riverine communities. Using a holistic approach, it educates the public and the government on the social and environmental impacts of dams and the benefits of alternative methods of energy development.

Women and girls in remote and rural areas of Vietnam are excluded from the decision-making processes in local development projects, especially with regard to natural resource management. WARECOD is particularly focused on fishing villages along the Red River in northern Vietnam that provides water and nutrition to millions of people. WARECOD says that, “social customs and traditional responsibilities relegate fishing women to lower social levels than males, lower even than social levels of other women in rural areas.” In a world where the Food and Agriculture Organization states that women are most often the collectors, users, and managers of water in the household, as well as farmers of crops, WARECOD recognizes the need to ensure women are supported in their vital role in managing environmental resources. WARECOD’s water management projects are designed to increase the capacity and decision-making power of women in the community, and by transferring critical skills and knowledge in their water management program, WARECOD hopes to create a channel for women to exercise their participation and rights.

WARECOD operates several projects to supply local communities with access to clean water, help rebuild elementary schools, and aid farmers in obtaining advanced farming technology to increase their income. Staff are also gathering data on the livelihoods of fishing women and their access to clean water. WARECOD plans to use the research findings to support future advocacy work, so that it can use concrete data in pressuring local governments to improve the living conditions for women and girls in the area. The findings will also be documented and distributed to local authorities and agencies, and presented at conferences.

A long-time Global Fund grantee, Groups of Women in Water & Agricultural Kochieng (GWAKO), works in Kochieng, western Kenya, to improve women’s health, protect girls’ right to education, and boost women’s economic status. The overwhelming majority of Kenyans don’t have access to clean water. Girls’ participation in education is severely restricted because they must spend hours fetching water for their families. Water-related diseases continue to be among the four top causes of death among women on the African continent.

GWAKO activities have resulted in wells in rural communities where women previously traveled for three to six hours to fetch water. The organization also conducts community education about hygiene and sanitation, improves farming methods for women, and installs washing facilities and latrines in schools. It has grown into a consortium of forty-one women’s groups in more than fourteen villages. GWAKO has also improved women’s access to food by training the women in modern farming methods that produce higher yields. Such changes are critical in a region where severe poverty increasingly forces girls into transactional sex to obtain food.

Also based in Kenya, Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS), builds demonstration plots to train women in improved agricultural practices. GROOTS works with women farming groups to provide training on sustainable agricultural practices, such as greenhouse use. More importantly, GROOTS created watchdog committees to safeguard women’s property and advocate for land tenure, housing, property, and inheritance rights of women and children. GROOTS facilitates direct participation of grassroots women in various national, regional, and global conferences, creating a platform for women most impacted by development policies to be heard by decision-makers. Its efforts have resulted in increased women’s representation as village elders, provincial administrators, members of local development funds, and in the management of educational institutions.

These examples seek to illustrate Global Fund’s approach to funding WASH — one that acknowledges the realities in which communities operate — and to creating systemic change in order to ensure long-lasting solutions to WASH issues. Using women’s rights, especially the right to water, as a lens to fund WASH programs is a sustainable way to build just, equitable, and peaceful societies. 

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