I never thought that I would so enjoy such a charming breakfast and chit-chat with women from different corners of the world at the ‘Citywide Inclusive Sanitation Principles’ workshop in Khulna, Bangladesh. That morning, 2nd April took me by surprise! I met more than twenty beautiful faces working for the WASH sector in different capacities and roles who joined the conversation, bringing a wealth of thoughts and courage, breaking the silence.
The conversation began with Alyse from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She introduced herself by saying how everyone had childhood dreams and over the years discovered themselves as a grown up women in diverse roles. I had no idea that the conversation would be so interesting. A range of inspiring characters appeared, including the world class political leader who influenced the idiom – the sky’s the limit!
Many women referred to their father as their dream icon. As an engineer, a quick mental calculation told me that around 40% mentioned that they wanted to be like their ‘fathers’. They portrayed their fathers as independent individuals, change makers, decision makers, or charismatic characters from their own perspectives and context, explaining why they wanted to follow their footsteps.
I was surprised not to hear a single story from a woman wanting to follow in her mother’s footsteps and asked myself why. Perhaps the traditional role of a mother doesn’t appeal to us – to be a blind follower rather than the glorious ‘father figure’, perhaps we were more attracted to be an ‘achiever’ in our life. This is just my assumption, I really don’t have the answer.
Their enlightening stories continued, reflecting their lifestyle and work and I was mesmerised listening to them. They shared their aspirations and experiences along with their learning curves. The journey of one woman really touched me. She became a councillor, and as the wife of an official of the same municipality, overcame stereotyping and social stigma.
Equal sharing of inherited property emerged as one of the critical issues for women’s empowerment, coupled with the state’s role in it. No one raised issues such as excessive workload, the capacity gap, extra support required to perform better and there were literally no complaints or frustrations. I personally knew that at least three of the participants are single mothers as well as performing very well in their professional and personal life. It made me proud seeing that all are making ‘efforts’ in a real sense, not ‘excuses’.
While witnessing the inspiring stories, I recalled the time back in 1998 when I joined ITN-BUET as a Technology Specialist. At that time, the engineering curriculum contained neither low-cost water supply and sanitation technology nor gender aspects. The first formal effort was made in the book, “Water Supply & Sanitation Rural and Low Income Urban Communities” by Professor Feroze Ahmed and Prof Mujibur Rahman. They introduced a light touch on gender awareness in Chapter 4 with deliberate effort, and with support from a Dutch woman, Ineka Vann Hoff from IHE Delft. I’m indebted to her for landing the first blow of gender thoughts on me.
I have been working in the WASH sector for over twenty years. I have found myself talking about sh*t in front of hundreds of men, with a feeling of isolation on many occasions for many years. This scenario has changed over the years. Women everywhere are taking over leadership positions, even though globally amongst the total number of WASH professionals they don’t exceed 10% yet. We should encourage more girls in this sector and at the same time, girls should be able to carve their own way to create a brighter future, utilising the available opportunities to the full. Conscious efforts to raise voices and bring thoughtful arguments, take challenges and use opportunities for professional engagement will definitely take a girl in the right direction.
I have one wish at the end! Maybe twenty years down the line, at another breakfast meeting, people will be stating their dream personalities to be their brave mother, sister or mentor from the WASH sector, the real trendsetters of the globe.
With acknowledgments to SNV, Practical Action, ITN-BUET and BMGF