We’re in Jebel Kheir, a village on the outskirts of Wau, which lies in South Sudan’s Western Bahr el Ghazal region of South Sudan.
Not very long ago, if you were sitting in one of the community meetings here, you would see it would only be men running things.
Speaking. Leading. Dominating.
The women, if they came at all, would be scattered somewhere in the back of the meeting, not contributing or saying much. Some might be minding their small babies bundled in their arms, others just looking at the ground.
This begs the question: did the women not have much to contribute? Or was this the result of generations of societal ‘norms’ and culture in Wau, where women were only to be seen and not heard?
Occasionally, there would be the lone woman in a leadership position, representing a women’s group, or as a member of a committee. Token representation? Some may wonder.
But things are changing in Jebel Kheir. The tide is turning.
A Water Management Committee in Jebel Kheir made up of 12 villagers, eight of whom are women, are a force to be reckoned with.
The Water Management Committee is responsible for the management of three communal water points in Jebel Kheir. Together with four men, these women share key roles such as the Chairperson and the Deputy, Treasurer and Caretaker.
“We were the first committee made up of mostly women in our area, and I know there was skepticism on whether we would rise to the occasion”, says the deputy Chairperson of the Water Management Committee, Veronica Raphael Yor, a forty-six-year-old mother of five.
“We told them: be patient, you will see”.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has constructed the water points the Management Committee oversees that benefit over 4,500 individuals living in the vicinity through provision of safe drinking water as a result.
The Organization has made some of this possible by incorporating more women in leadership structures such as water management committees. IOM encourages processes that take into consideration the concerns of women and marginalized individuals while also empowering their voices in their communities.
IOM is also involved in training sessions to equip the Committee with skills to administer, operate, repair and maintain the water points.
Before she was elected to the committee, Veronica says she was very shy and could not bear the thought of speaking before a crowd.
“I would hunch down while talking, counting my fingers,” she recalls. Exuding a touch of confidence in her voice, Veronica says that now, with the trainings she received from IOM, she can “stand in front of hundreds of people and speak without being afraid.”
In South Sudan, women and girls still bear the brunt of doing household chores such as fetching drinking water used to cook and also clean the house. Before IOM’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene team drilled the boreholes to provide the community with water, they had to walk for miles to reach the nearest water point. This exposed women and girls to the risk of violence whenever they went to fetch water.
“Before, rape used to happen. As early as 7pm, we would hear women crying, but you couldn’t do anything to help,” Veronica explains. “We are very happy that our women no longer have to walk for long stretches to access water - we feel safer.”
Veronica says the water point is their lifeline and the Water Management Committee is determined to effectively manage it to ensure its sustainability and make a lasting impact. The team holds weekly meetings to go over bookkeeping and address issues as they arise.
Not long after assuming the leadership role, the Committee began offering improvements. The committee used contributions collected from community members for the upkeep to build a shelter to house the water points to safeguard them from misuse or vandalism.
“This is something that the previous Committee did not achieve,” says Veronica. “What the women-led Water Management Committed has achieved encouraged other women in our community to realize that women have the ability to lead and make a difference.”
IOM recognizes and takes action to encourage the central role of women in managing and in decision-making roles related to water, sanitation and hygiene and is working extensively to identify and address barriers to women’s participation in leadership roles, including women with disabilities.
“Our activities put emphasis on the need to reinforce women’s role as active participants in humanitarian assistance and not simply as passive beneficiaries,” says IOM South Sudan’s Chief of Mission, Jean-Philippe Chauzy.
It is vital that women like Veronica take up leadership roles in their communities. Equally important is that the men are changing their perceptions and supporting women’s role in leading community change.
Veronica explains her message to other women as: “Women lift your heads up and look around; the work a man can do, a woman can also do.”
This project is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Response and Prevention of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Program.
This article was written by Liatile Putsoa, IOM South Sudan Media and Communications Officer.