Interview with Women for Water Partnership President
27th February 2017, The Hague
You have been President of Women for Water Partnership (WfWP) for nearly three years. In the meantime you have also been elected President of Soroptimist International (2017-2019). Last month the Women Economic Forum presented its “Women of the Decade Creating a Better World for All' award to you. It is therefore a good time to take stock of your experiences as President of Women for Water Partnership. By Frederique Holle
How would you characterise your three years as president of WfWP?
Being president of WfWP gave me the most incredible opportunities. I have met the most inspiring people among our members and beyond. Over the years, I have developed a better perspective of what I could and can still do. I feel far more involved and enthusiastic about our aims. Our efforts to secure access to safe water for all, for all uses and access to gender responsive sanitation as well as to empower women so that they are in a position to act as leaders, experts, partners and agents of change are more crucial than ever. And the challenges continue. Considering the current world developments, we are going backwards in terms of women’s opportunities, rights and gender equality. I personally believe, like WfWP, that water provides an important opportunity for women. It is an acceptable and non-threatening way to get women high up in priority positions as decision makers and leaders. Being part of WfWP gives me enormous satisfaction because I feel we are really making a difference!
What are WfWP’s top priorities for the future?
We must continue to focus on SDG 5 (gender equality) and SDG 6 (water). When you talk about water and women, people are usually reminded of water wells and the women who have to walk many miles to fetch water for themselves and their families. Wastewater management, technical aspects of water, and peace negotiations on trans-boundary water issues are usually not associated with women. But women should be part of this too. Women have valuable knowledge and expertise too, but this is sadly not recognised.
Different reports show that only 17% of women work in the water sector worldwide. This is inclusive of administrative jobs. Women working in STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics - red) are hardly ever invited as keynote speakers. At conferences, the women have their ‘own’ forum, or their own sessions, which are largely kept separate from the main proceedings. Women’s issues are not prioritised. This is the reason why we are hardly ever represented at the opening sessions of conventions, why we have separate women’s fora and why our recommendations are only included in the final outcome after much insistence.
Getting financial support is another issue – not only for WfWP, but for all women organisations. The assumption is apparently that women cannot handle big projects or deal with vast amounts of money. Both men and women have made mistakes, but when a woman makes a mistake, it is considered typical of all women.
Gender equality should be a fact by now, but sadly it’s not. That is why WfWP advocates getting women at higher decision-making levels. Together with our members and partnerships we have to ensure that women get better educated and empowered so they can find employment in the water sector. Through water issues, women can also enter into positions in other sectors.
What was your most memorable experience in the past three years as WfWP president?
We have achieved so much that I couldn’t possibly single out just one memorable event. In addition to the applications to obtain financial support, WfWP and its members have played a key role at many conferences. We co-hosted side events at, among others, Dushanbe, CSW, Stockholm World Water Week, the Gender Water and Development conference, The World Water Decade and the World Water Forum. It has been wonderful to be part of the Steering Committee. I have enjoyed tremendous support from our secretariat. In short, the sky is the limit with our team!
During your travels far and wide, you’ve met many people from many different places. What were your impressions from these trips and conferences?
Sadly, women are often considered a minority in political negotiations around the world. In resolutions, we are grouped together with indigenous women, grassroots women and the handicapped. But the truth is we are half the world’s population!
Water is a key driver of economic and social development while it also has a basic function in maintaining the integrity of the natural environment. Not one country in the world has achieved integrated water planning – even though we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Dublin Principles this year. It was the first time that one of the four internationally accepted principles of water management was that women play a central role in the provision, management, and safeguarding of water. In 1995 Beijing defined the Platform for Action in which gender equality and the empowerment of all women everywhere was the main objective. But again we needed SDG 5 to get gender equality in 2030. Let’s hope it will happen. I don’t want to be negative, but man and women will have to work together in order to realize SDGs 5 & 6.
Is there anyone in particular whom you met during your travels who stands out?
An answer is difficult because there are so many incredible women in our field. I’ve met wonderful women, but also great men. For one, the South African Minister for Water and Sanitation, Mrs Nomvula Mokonyane, was inspiring. Josefina Maestu at the United Nations Office to Support the International Decade for
Action ‘Water for Life 2005-2015’ is an awesome woman who is full of energy. The grassroots women involved in one of our projects in Mwhihoko, Kenya are worth mentioning. They are such role models. Although they had nothing, these women started implementing our project without complaint. The end result is that they now own the land, have their own rainwater harvesting system and have their own bank account. They never thought this dream could become reality, but they did it. Of course there were obstacles, but they took the hurdles and that is why they are such powerful force now. Indeed from the grassroots up, there are incredible women everywhere.
How did you become inspired by women equality and water? Where does that drive come from?
When I was President of Soroptimist International of Europe, I chose the theme ‘Soroptimists go for Water’. The Federation has clubs in Africa and Southern Europe with a shortage of water, in Eastern Europe where the water is polluted and in the Low Countries with too much water. We managed to implement many projects and this is when I got inspired by women. Water was an entry point to educate and empower these women. WfWP links these women at all levels from grassroots to national and UN levels. In my youth women mostly stayed at home, and men were the breadwinners. My mum was teaching home economics. But my father made sure my mother did not have to do all tasks on her own, so he supported her with the household and they both raised their five children. So I was taught from a young age onwards that there should be equality. In later life I often encountered injustice, and that’s why I will always fight for gender equality.
Do you have an important message you would like to share?
Women should support each other. Sadly, women from my generation don’t always do that. Let’s not see each other as competitors, but join hands and work for a future of equality. I hope you do not see me as a feminist who hates men. On the contrary, I love men: I have a husband, three sons, and soon two grandsons. But we should work together for a better world. The fact that women look at things from a different angle can only be positive. Men usually take decisions quicker. Women are more cautious: have we thought this through? Are we doing the right thing? These two approaches make a perfect combination. So, men and women should stick together, join hands and ensure gender equality worldwide.