“Sex for Water” may sound outrageous, however, this is a reality in the lives of many women, who have to give into the advances made by men– just to get access to water. Something that is their right, but denied and how!
When water is not available at home, the burden of water-collection usually falls on women, however, the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating these existing inequalities because of curfew timings and the constant need for handwashing, creating additional burden of water collection. At communal water points, there is a fear of contact with contaminated surfaces (such as handpumps, tanks, wells) and lack of social distancing, but for Goldie and Maureen (names changed to conceal identity) there is a bigger threat lurking at these water facilities. Our team at Kenya Water and Sanitation Civil Society Network (KEWASNET) and UMANDE TRUST have collected the following testimonials to highlight how COVID-19 has made the unfortunate situation worse:
The Story of Goldie: I dare not speak out
Goldie fetches water in the evening. She often goes to the water point at 4 pm and leaves with water at around 6 or 7 pm depending on the length of the queue. She recounts the lack of courtesy at the local water point since there are people (mostly men) who jump the queue and are served without being rebuked. She does not speak out against this injustice to share her displeasure because she fears being cornered by the men and beaten up. During water shortages, she has to walk for 30 minutes to get water and often has to reduce the quantity of water she buys owing to the cost of purchase.
Such long walks have their own challenges, potentially exposing people to harassment (women to sexual violence and men to mugging). The curfew period (the Kenyan government’s directive on dusk to dawn movement restrictions due to Covid-19) has further aggravated this issue. She dreads going out for water collection, knowing that there may be men waiting alongside the path to touch her in unwanted and inappropriate ways. This has happened to her thrice but she dare not complain to anyone, fearing that this would exacerbate the situation, leading to worse consequences for her. She is sometimes left with only one option: to ensure that she fetches water early so as to avoid confrontation by these men and youth. Goldie feels that the solution to this problem is increasing the water distribution in the area.
The Story of Maureen: Forced relationships for water
Maureen fetches water in the morning. Even when there is plenty of water, she leaves the house by 6 am, but when there is water shortage she must be out of the door while it is still dark –by 4 am. The responsibility of fetching water is often left to her and her sisters. When water is scarce in the neighborhood, she walks for 30 minutes to get water. It then takes her between 30 minutes and 1 hour to fetch water at the various water points. She has grown accustomed to harassment, which is often carried out by people known to her –while she feels powerless to do anything about it. The men (mainly motor bike operators) often block their path and deny her and her sisters to walk past them (she has been forced to go back home twice) or they try to “woo” them.
If they accept these advances and play along, they are allowed to proceed with their business and fetch water. As a survival tactic, Maureen, otherwise feeling helpless, resorts to asking one of the men in the group to carry for her the water vessel on her way back home (the group continues to harass them on their way back) that they might continue talking. She has even given her phone number to one of the men and agreed to his advances, which has guaranteed her protection from other men. This, however, is not the only challenge she experiences in her pursuit for water.
At the water point, the water vendor flirts with her and touches her without her consent, something which makes her feel violated. In this instance, she has tried to confront the water vendor. However, when she does this, the water vendor behaves harshly and yells at her should there be any water spill while she is fetching it. Sometimes, the price for water is hiked only for her in order to punish her for not submitting to his advances. She is thus, forced to part with more money than she had budgeted for given her limited options of accessing water.
Unfortunately, this harassment extends even beyond fetching water. As she passes next to the water point, the water vendor gangs up with other men to abuse her and to body shame her, something which makes her feel violated. According to Maureen, the touching escalates when there is crowding during water shortages. She, therefore, thinks that the water vendors should be empowered to enable them have proper work ethics. She also feels like water points in the area should be added and more women should be incorporated in the sale of water.
The Story of Lucy- ‘Yes’ for Water
Lucy lives in one of the villages in Kibera. Fetching water is a task that is often delegated to her. She mostly fetches water in the evening after doing household chores, studying and relaxing. Due to water scarcity in her village, she often queues for an hour before she is served. While on the queue, she receives advances from various men (including the water operators) who ask her to be their girlfriend (in different incidences). If she accepts to talk to them and acts as if she likes their advances, she gets to jump the queue and is served quicker. She has resorted to this tactic (pretending to like the advances or going with the flow) to ensure that she gets served fast.
The major problem is that these advances do not just end at the water point, some try to follow her home, an act she does not appreciate. Should any of the men meet her when she is going about her other businesses and tries to engage her, and she refuses, they resort to verbal abuse. Lucy has been cornered four times by different water operators who expected to take their ‘relationship’ a step further; something which she rejected. The consequences of this rejection have seen her denied water access by the operators and public humiliation through obscenities hurled at her. She is now forced to walk for 30 minutes to a new water point. In this instance, she has to be accompanied by someone who is older, mostly her mother. Lucy is not comfortable with what she has to go through but states that avenues for reporting such incidences are lacking given that perpetrators have been known to bribe their way out and come back to the village to cause more problems to the whistleblowers.
Sareen Malik, Coordinator, African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation (ANEW) and SWA Steering Committee Vice-Chair, KEWASNET and UMANDE TRUST