From a Trickle to a Stream: Unleashing the Power of Women’s Voices for Tanzania’s Water Sector

Bahati Mwinyimvua is a village elder who participated in the baseline assessment WARIDI conducted in several villages exploring men’s and women’s attitudes and knowledge around water. Photo credit: Hannah Mosher

For Tanzanian women, water has the tremendous potential to transform lives. Women in Tanzania have a keen interest in water’s thoughtful management for their homes and farms, and they bear the burden of water retrieval. However, they are not yet fully included in community decision-making processes nor in water and sanitation business opportunities. They confront traditional gender roles for community participation and decision-making, such as “even if what a woman speaks is good, it has to be said by a man and not a woman,” as one village elder recently said.  While Tanzania is clearly committed at multiple levels to respond to the reality of women’s and girls’ disproportionate stake in effective water management, promising models to increase their voice and participation are still finding their footing.

In the meantime, Tanzanian women are already showing leadership on water management. In fact, women played a critical role in encouraging their communities to participate in USAID’s  Water Resources Integration Development Initiative (WARIDI), as reported in the baseline assessment in the villages of Lulanzi and Kanolo. “As an elder of this village, I have seen how the long distance to get water has troubled women here. WARIDI is changing that,” said Bahati Mwinyimvua. She also noted, “This project is a real savior for us. We are looking forward to it with open arms because there is a huge challenge of water in our village.”

WARIDI is training and mentoring local government authorities on strategies to elevate participation of women and youth in local water governance, in line with the commitment to ensure that women and girls have a voice in decision-making made under USAID’s Water and Development Plan in support of the U.S. Government Global Water Strategy. Women’s collectives in Tanzania are also expanding skills in nontraditional roles for women in the water sector, such as pump construction and maintenance. 

Understanding and dynamically addressing social norms around gender are critical steps in helping communities realize women’s potential for leadership in this sector. To design the social norms change intervention, called UPWARD (Uplifting Participation in Water-related Decision-making, WARIDI talked with nearly 200 people in focus group discussions, community meetings, and interviews to learn more about how gender roles, stereotypes, and power dynamics shape decisions and behaviors around water.

What they found reflects communities’ engagement in the process of transformation. Many men and women acknowledged that it is still difficult for women to participate fully in community meetings on water, even though they may attend meetings more frequently than their male peers. For young, unmarried women, speaking out in meetings is seen as disrespectful to elders, and for older, married women, it is seen as an affront to their husbands’ status as head of the household. Stakeholders mentioned that when women’s perspectives are not considered, water schemes and technologies can end up being a poor fit for the community, and women and girls spend the same amount of time fetching water.  Yet they are also beginning to see a change, just by discussing gender dynamics and exploring norms that exclude women. As one older woman said, “It’s true that women are shy in our community, but the situation is changing now because of the trainings provided to women and greater educational attainment. These things have increased the awareness of women.” Based on the activities begun by WARIDI, increased women’s engagement in decision-making promises to unlock improved solutions on water issues, for example by improving the placement of water hardware to lessen women’s daily water-fetching burden. 

Women have a crucial stake in building communities with lasting access to water services. Communities are learning how important it is to cultivate and amplify women’s voices and tap into their knowledge and talents to foster a more sustainable future for all.

By Mary Beth Hastings, senior associate with Iris Group. Iris Group is a partner on USAID/WARIDI.