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Sex for Water: WIN in Conversation with ANEW

On water integrity, gender, and the troubling issue of sextortion

Sareen Malik is Executive Secretary of the African Civil Society Network for Water and Sanitation (ANEW) and vice chair of the steering committee of SWA. Based in Nairobi, ANEW is the umbrella organisation of water and sanitation CSOs across Africa, present in over 50 countries.

Bringing over 15 years of experience in the field of water governance and restructuring WASH NGOs, Malik helps organisations to meaningfully engage in the water and anti-corruption sectors, and to recognise good water governance as key to improved sector performance. Malik is a lawyer by profession and has widely published on water sector governance tools, policies, and practices for state and non-state actors.

This article was derived from a recorded interview between Sareen Malik of the African Civil Society Network for Water and Sanitation (ANEW) and Tasneem Balasinorwala of the Water Integrity Network (WIN), held on May 20, 2021. It has been edited for clarity.


How does access to water and sanitation facilities contribute to a sense of dignity for women, children, and people with physical disabilities?

Let’s look at it from two points of view: the urban setting and the rural setting.

Within urban settings, distances to water and sanitation are often shorter, but the facilities are usually inadequate. There’s already quite a bit in the documentation on this, including harrowing pictures of rundown facilities. To use facilities with some level of cleanliness, you have to have cash with you.

These facilities are not safe for many women and girls. It involves waking up at ungodly hours to get water or to go to the bathroom. In Nairobi, we know of so-called “flying toilets”. Basically, when the men of the family are away for work over the week, women and girls who are too afraid to access the sanitation facilities, defecate in plastic or paper bags and throw them out. When the men are back on the weekends, there are fewer incidents of these flying toilets.

And let’s not even get into the issues of menstrual hygiene management, which is another nightmare. You don’t have the sanitary space or sanitary pads, and your water use tends to increase. You are not in a position to look after yourself the way you should. And this causes girls to stay at home, missing out on school. We see this, really, pretty much everywhere.

The facilities are also not designed for people with disabilities. So, people with disabilities have to rely heavily on community or family members to support them. And this assistance is usually not very forthcoming.

Within rural settings, all this is exacerbated by the distance. In 2011, we were testing a programme, so visited a small settlement by a river. We saw people with disabilities and the elderly at the river, and women fetching water from the river.

There is domestic use, defecating, and showering that is equally taking place at literally the same point. And let us not forget the animals. This was not a very long stream-type of river.

People with disabilities were using that particular river because it was the most accessible. During the day, when nobody was around, they were left to their own devices. So, the programme asked the service provider to bring facilities closer – to set up water kiosks or some sort of piping system.

It was actually a success – one of the cases where the service provider went in and actually tried to set up some sort of WASH facilities for these people. Let us come back to the issue of dignity.

Toilet facilities are mired in low maintenance and overuse. A couple of years ago in a school in Kajiado [a county in Kenya], we had three-generation toilets. That is, some organisation came in and pitched a toilet. Then it broke down. Then somebody else came in and set up a different facility. Then another one came in and set one up when that broke. And it was pretty much that way every time one set of facilities broke down. The issue there was really an issue of maintenance.

Ownership of these facilities is also an issue we see in these communities. The toilets were messy, backed up, and disused. Even where WASH facilities had been set up in certain communities, you’d still have people defecating in the open. There were cases where men did not want to use the same facilities as the women. So, it had not solved the problem, per se.

We did see some ODF [open defecation free] and CLTS [community-led total sanitation] initiatives training communities but also remaining on the backend to make sure that these facilities were actually maintained. That’s how you come closer to the real issues are. There’s the crack in the door of the WASH facility that allows for the Peeping Tom to look in, for example. And there’s the poor lighting and the well-documented assaults taking place in these facilities.

But these are also areas of gathering as well. In one informal settlement in Eldoret, the pastor of the church discouraged his flock from using the WASH facilities, because he felt there was too much going on over there. A lot of people would go there to shower at the local waterfalls – men and women together.

Of course, this raised a lot of issues regarding exposure, unwanted pregnancies, and just this mingling. It was a kind of hypersexualised environment. This pastor put a stop to it. So, we went with him to the service provider to see if a proper facility could be set up.

KEWASNET and ANEW have recently done some groundbreaking research on sextortion in two informal settlements in Kenya. What should people know about this issue?

In 2015, we were in two informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya to do a human-rights-based analysis of power dynamics around water.

This [sextortion] issue came up. Unfortunately, legitimising the issue has been really difficult. The sense I am getting from it is that because an NGO or a big research centre has not yet produced results on this, it is not credible. We proceeded to collect stories to understand the issue – there was never any doubt that these women had stories to tell.

We then brought the issue to the global level in 2018, working in partnership with SIWI [Stockholm International Water Institute], which had already done some research on the matter. We then received support from the Danish government to go ahead with a bigger baseline survey.

Of the violence that women and girls experienced, we found that 8–10 percent was sextortion – sex for water. We heard from local leaders who had been themselves victims. The results of this violence are, of course, disastrous: sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and death in certain cases. All this, really, because of trying to access water and sanitation services.

We’re trying to focus on the issue of sextortion, but it touches on other issues of SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence], in terms of making WASH facilities safer and more accessible to women and girls, so that they are not filled with dread and anxiety when they actually go to and use these facilities.

We have started a campaign – Sex for Water – with a number of activities, including a little bit more research on some of the issues, because these are new dimensions. One of the dimensions is to really understand perceptions of sexual behaviour within certain communities and the power element. Even if the woman does have the money to get the water, the proposal still comes to her, you see. It is a power game – I have to have power over you.

This speaks to much bigger issues – and of gender equality – that we have within our society. We have been sensitising communities to this, as part of our capacity building. We are mentoring young boys and girls on SGBV. It has been really good to see youth taking an active role within their communities, addressing these issues in the heart of informal settlements. We’ve also found that where there was action taken against sextortion or against SGBV, mothers were behind that action. Where you had mothers go to the police, the mothers also followed up on the case. (And the first time we heard about sextortion was actually from a mother.) But one of the most important elements of the advocacy campaign is pushing for the acceptance and legitimising of sextortion within our legal and policy frameworks.

How has the Kenyan water sector reacted to this research?

Kenya organised a big gender and youth conference in July 2021, and the Sex for Water programme was added to sessions and the report. WASH practitioners are shocked, but some still question whether this is really a thing. The response from policymakers remains to be seen. They’ve been hearing about it. I’ve gotten informal calls. Is this really a thing? Did you just invent a new problem? Did you manipulate them to say this? The struggle is real.

Many are not ready to accept that it’s a one-party thing. Even at one of our workshops, there was the concept of “willing buyer, willing seller” – that this is “a currency by women to avoid paying bills.” It doesn’t matter if it’s used, the officer on duty is not supposed to accept it. It’s important that we write about consent and power.

We have to push back and say that, if the conditions were right, she’d probably never think about such a trade in the first place. We also have to push the authorities to make more water points free for women, like they drilled borewells for COVID. It’s possible.

What can global water sector organizations do?

They can accept, legitimise, and mainstream work on addressing sextortion in their programmes.

They know that there is gender-based violence, but they have not accepted sextortion.

They feel that they need to conduct the research themselves. But what about the voices of the people telling you that these things have happened. Shouldn’t that be evidence enough? If not, at least accept the results of those that have done the research. The data is being presented to you – build on the data.

How are the focus and funds for gender in water and sanitation translating into improving the situation in Kenya?

Gender equality is recognised within the Kenyan constitution. And Kenya has made a lot of strides in addressing gender issues, passing laws like the Sexual Offences Act 2006 for eg. But a lot more needs to be done in terms of changes in conservative attitudes towards women and girls. This is a very long process.

We are seeing the emancipation of Kenyan women[1]. The public space is open to women in Kenya. Women are taking up more leadership positions.

For example, Martha Koome was recently appointed chief justice. We saw reforms on inheritance laws. We saw certain marital practices being outlawed, like wife inheritance. Kenya may not be where Rwanda is, in terms of its [majority-female] parliament, but I still feel that East Africa is quite active in pushing women.

That said, at the kick-off meeting of Sex for Water, the local leader said that when men see her walking into a room – and this is verbatim – “It’s like my vagina is on my forehead. They see a vagina working.” It says a lot that, in spite of her position, she was still not getting the respect that she deserved, because she is a woman.

We’ve been in meetings to which women were invited but remained silent the entire meeting – silent, even as their issues were being discussed. NGOs try to get a bit smarter on that front, for example, by just having meetings with women. But as soon as the man walks in, nobody says anything. This is more in the remote areas; within urban settings, we are seeing more assertiveness – even aggression – coming from women.

Practitioners often see a water point with a massive queue of women and girls and think it’s just a technical problem. But if we’re going to talk about water governance, we know that governance means power. So, approaching it from that governance perspective means understanding the power dynamics in this queue and conducting some sort of power analysis within these communities.

Practitioners need to open their eyes, to look closely, and to ask the questions that will lead to a much bigger conversation.


[1] A recent study – developed by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) in partnership with the State Department for Gender, UN Women and UNICEF using a first-of-its-kind measure of women’s empowerment, the Kenya Women’s Empowerment Index (WEI), – shows that only 29 percent of Kenyan women can participate equally and effectively in political, economic, and cultural life — and that their involvement is largely dependent on household circumstances. The Index provides the first comprehensive and systematic measure for women and girl’s empowerment in Kenya.


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