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Kanika Thakar (SIWI): "Women are visibly missing from the water dialogue"

  • Kanika Thakar (SIWI): "Women are visibly missing from the water dialogue"
    Photo: #WaterWomen. SIWI

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SIWI is a water institute. We leverage knowledge and our convening power to strengthen water governance for a just, prosperous, and sustainable future.
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Women play crucial roles in all areas of water governance, yet too often they are missing or inadequately represented in the water dialogue.  

When both women and men participate in decision-making, supervision and provision of water, experience shows that water projects gain efficiency and sustainability.

Ahead of World Toilet Day, celebrated on 19th of November, we speak to Kanika Thakar, SIWI’s Gender Focal Point and a Programme Officer, on the organization’s current work to integrate gender equality in the water sector.

Question: Firstly, we would like to know briefly about your career path.

Answer: It all began for me in 2004 in India, where I spent a year working with a charity called Pratham that focused on bringing education and literacy to children living in the slums. It was here that I first realized that water and toilets might actually be considered luxury items, rather than a given. And that things that I had taken for granted all of my life had the power to transform the lives of women and girls. With appropriate access to water and toilets girls are able to stay in school and complete their education, women were less at risk of sexual abuse, and women could be afforded dignity when managing their menstrual cycles, rather than be shunned.  

Later, my experiences of working at the UN Headquarters in New York and later at the Global Water Partnership in Stockholm made me realize just how little the water community talked about sanitation. It seemed that no one dared to mention the words toilet, poo or even faeces. That spurred me on to create a campaign, “#toilettalk” to break the taboo around toilets, poo, and menstruation in order to drive policy reform. I am a strong believer that it is impossible to solve a problem if you can’t talk about it. My journey continued when I set up my own consultancy to help toilet and water start-ups get off the ground.

Today, I am the Gender Focal Point and a Programme Officer working on water resources management at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

Q: Why are gender equality issues important in the water and sanitation sector?

A: Women and men face very different realities when it comes to clean water and toilets. As primary caregivers and managers of household resources, women and girls must plan their lives around when and where water is accessible. This often limits their ability to participate in productive work and education outside the home. Without regular access to an adequate toilet at home, women must wait until the cover of night to pee and poo putting them at greater risk of renal disease, sexual assault, and animal attacks. When toilets are not accessible at school, girls often lack the ability to manage their periods with dignity. Girls begin missing classes and often drop out of school as it is too difficult to catch up when so many classes have been missed.

Access to toilets and drinking water are often the most cited examples of gender inequality. However, lack of active female participation in water management and water conflict processes has resulted in unsustainable management frameworks.

Gender equality in all aspects of water governance and decision-making helps address these inequalities by bringing them to the surface. While decision-making forums are dominated by the “male experience” we will unfortunately continue to see outcomes that disadvantage and downplay the realities faced by women and girls across the world.

When we exclude women and girls from the conversation, we are missing out on more than half of the knowledge and perspectives required to facilitate informed and sustainable decisions.

Lack of active female participation in water management and water conflict processes has resulted in unsustainable management frameworks

Q: An important gender gap exists in all aspects of water governance. Why do you think this is?

A: This is an important question, but it is important to note that the gender gap is not exclusive to water governance. The gender gap that afflicts water governance is the same one that restricts women and girls everywhere. This is a systemic issue where women are often denied the right to own their experiences and the knowledge that comes with it. We have decided as a society that women simply do not possess the same strengths, knowledge or skills as those afforded to men. Despite women educating themselves, engaging with their communities, carrying the same if not a greater burden of work, they are still considered less able than their male counterparts. It is up to us all, individually and as a global community, to change the way we look at and engage with women and girls, and to take the necessary steps to bring their voices, perspectives, and experiences to the table at every level. When we see women at all levels and functions of governance, we will then see sustainable outcomes.

The lack of gender disaggregated data continues to be a significant barrier to advancing gender equality. Without data to illustrate how management practices and governance decisions impact women and men differently, we will not fully grasp their impacts. Without data we also fail to fully understand the benefits that women bring to processes; we continue to rely heavily on anecdotal testimony. We must keep in mind that strong policy often relies on strong evidence backing.

The gender gap that afflicts water governance is the same one that restricts women and girls everywhere

Q: How is SIWI integrating gender equality in the water sector?

A: SIWI has several approaches to integrating gender equality in the water sector, ranging from mainstreaming to programmes dedicated to raising women’s capacity. Below are a few examples of the work that we do.

  • Mainstreaming and the gender equality focal point:

SIWI has invested in each staff member having a certain number of hours to learn about and experiment with integrating gender equality into projects and programmes. To support this SIWI funds the gender equality focal point position, a dedicated staff resource to help staff learn about and identify opportunities for mainstreaming (or integrating) gender equality into every aspect of SIWI’s work.

  • Female leaders training and networks:

Under SIWI’s Shared Partnership Programme, women water professionals, active in transboundary water management in the Nile Basin have received capacity building trainings. The programme strives to empower and support women in decision making and peace building processes.

These kinds of activities not only aim to build the capacity of women in the area of water governance and transboundary water cooperation, but also to help women feel more confident and secure in spaces where they traditionally face hostility. In addition, these programmes also facilitate the creation of regional professional networks so that women have colleagues that they can continue to lean on for support.

  • Sextortion

In 2017, SIWI in partnership with UNDP published a report shining the spotlight on sextortion in the water sector. Sextortion is the act of women or men being sexually exploited in exchange for water services. The study looked specifically at personal accounts from water users and water sector employees forced to trade sexual favours in order to access drinking water or career opportunities. Shining the light on this kind of behaviour brings much needed attention and funding to address these all too common practices facing women.

  • World Water Week Gold Standard

SIWI has helped change the way we are seeing and hearing water experts. The World Water Week Gold Standard provides a financial and promotional incentive for convenors who commit to having at least 40 per cent of their speaking positions filled by women in their sessions. When introduced in 2016, the commitment to the Gold Standard was less than 40 per cent of sessions. In 2018, that number ballooned to 86 per cent of all sessions demonstrating a strong gender balance. This commitment has been echoed throughout the water community with some conferences fully adhering to the Gold Standard criteria. It is increasingly rare to see all male panels at any water conferences today.

Q: Could you tell us a bit more about SIWI’s #WaterWomen initiative?

A: Women are visibly missing from the water dialogue. When women are depicted, they are often only done so as victims or disenfranchised (incapable) users. We wanted to change this narrative and show women as the empowered, knowledgeable, and valuable decision makers, managers, users, and stewards that they are. Through the #WaterWomen campaign we have gathered more than 200 photos of women in active and leading roles in the water sector; as researchers, scientists, advocates, users, managers, students, decision makers, and more. Seeing is believing! We wanted to challenge the current narrative and show how women are participating in the water sector to remind both men and women that we have a huge set of female experts to draw from, but also to inspire more women to enter the field and let themselves be seen and heard.

Gender equality is not a women’s issue to be discussed only by women

Q: Lastly, what have been the main conclusions regarding gender equality in this year’s World Water Week?

I think the biggest conclusion was that we need to stop talking about gender equality in silos. Gender equality is not a women’s issue to be discussed only by women. We need to welcome men to the discussion and encourage everyone to start asking the tough questions. We need people to reflect and address their own inherent biases and create judgement free zones where these biases can be discussed and dissected. Other conclusions include:

  • The overall need for greater diversity within the water sector
  • We all stand to gain when we bring in more women and other groups
  • The need to reframe what excellence looks like to make room for other kinds of experts at different levels – the definition of excellence needs to evolve as we begin to recognize other areas of expertise.
  • Making room for women doesn’t mean less room for men. Making room for women allows men to take on new areas and grows the field overall.
  • We need to create environments where women can succeed.

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