Wata for Wata: Unveiling Struggles and Empowerment in Sierra Leone’s Quest for Water Access

by Sierraeye

Peering into the daily lives of Freetown’s suburban residents, the struggle for water access might seem a distant concern, easily brushed aside in the busyness of our routines. Yet, if we pull back the curtain on these comfortable neighbourhoods and venture into the vulnerable and impoverished communities, we uncover a dire reality. The challenges to water access, which we often perceive as fleeting inconveniences, are severely impacting women and girls, fueling conflicts over water, and exposing individuals to the perils of sexual and gender-based violence. Some residents dig wells or boreholes behind their homes, while others rely on public pipelines for weekly water supply.

As a country, we must recognize the critical importance of achieving this goal, particularly for impoverished communities that suffer from inadequate access to clean water and sanitation facilities. Although the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 strives to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” by 2030, thousands nationwide, including Freetown, still lack safe water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities. Despite some progress, the provision of these fundamental necessities remains inadequate.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022 highlights a staggering fact: “For at least 3 billion people, the quality of water they rely on is unknown due to a lack of monitoring.” Water is a critical component of sustainable development – it is the linchpin in sustainable development – and is under severe threat from various societal challenges, including sexual and gender-based violence. The demand for water is rising because of fast population expansion, urbanization, and increased pressure from agriculture, industry, and the energy sector.

Progress and Initiatives in Sierra Leone
In recent years, UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and Freetown City Council have collaboratively worked to address water challenges in Freetown communities, notably those grappling with acute water issues. By embracing innovative solutions, these initiatives intend to enhance water access. Through close interactions with these communities, the extent of the water crisis becomes clear, particularly the burdens faced by women and girls who often shoulder the responsibility of water procurement. These engagements with the communities revealed several dimensions of the water crisis in the city, especially the challenges women and girls face in most households, as they carry the sole responsibility of obtaining water for their homes.

In June 2022, the UNCDF and Freetown City Council joined hands with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to confront these challenges head-on. Supported by organizations like the Institute of Legal Research and Advocacy for Justice (ILRAJ), the Federation for Urban and Rural Poor (FEDURP), the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), Sierra Leone Labour Congress, and Sierra Leone Employers’ Federation, they launched the “Women for Water and Peace” (W4WP) Project. With funding from the United Nations Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund, this initiative targets five wards in the Freetown Municipal area – Ward 401 – Mayinkineh, Ward 408 – Rokupa, Ward 435 – Dworzak, Ward 442 – Lumley, and Ward 443 – Crab Town in the Freetown Municipal area – aiming to empower young women from these communities to champion change through the establishment of twenty-five water kiosks equipped with solar-powered purification systems. This innovative infrastructure development, driven by a community-led approach, not only provides clean water to underserved populations but also cultivates a path toward positive transformation and peace. Young women from the selected communities are given the opportunity to run the kiosks as companies and become agents of change and peace.

A Roadmap for Change
Going into these communities under the banner of the W4WP project, ILRAJ got to interact and engage with the community by speaking to the local stakeholders and councillors, who in turn gave access to speak to the women of the community. Such engagement with the women and girls uncovered various stories bordering on sexual and gender-based violence in relation to accessing water. These stories ranged from abusive households, unwanted relationships, and teenage pregnancy.

According to what we learned from the communities, adolescent females had no choice but to engage in sexual encounters with senior males or even their age mates who oversaw the running of the community wells to gain access to water. We also came across the term’ wata for wata,’ which refers to the practice of using women’s and young girls’ bodies to allow them to gain access to water. Listening to these perspectives and providing a platform for members of these communities has greatly empowered the residents. Providing them with relevant simplified laws, general information and knowledge on sexual and gender-based violence, such as where to ask for support or report such instances, will potentially help them safeguard and protect themselves in the future and also empower the community’s women and girls.

Further interactions with the community allowed various individuals to freely open up to us about their first-hand experiences with water problems. It has been exciting learning from these communities, in turn, as they also teach us the harsh realities existing right under our noses but how they have found ways to live with it and their temerity can teach many. While water scarcity has enabled conflict to arise in the communities, these communities are now approaching the conversation of access to water with a clearer mindset. Providing access to sustainable water can only work by listening to the community and returning to the drawing board to find efficient ways by having the necessary back-and-forth conversations. Most members are ready to put measures into place to sustain and maintain these infrastructures.

The Road Ahead
The journey toward ensuring available and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all impoverished communities in Freetown is a testament to the country’s dedication to improving the lives of its citizens. Through the collective efforts of government, international partners, and local communities, providing sustainable water is not just a goal but a promise of a healthier, more prosperous future for Sierra Leone. While progress has been made, challenges persist, but the step taken is a beacon of hope that showcases the power of collaboration and determination in shaping a better world for all.

Sierra Leone must target equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water, adequate sanitation facilities, improved water quality, and increased water-use efficiency. Persistent dedication, as well as innovative ideas, will be critical in overcoming these barriers. It is feasible to effect positive and long-term change, resulting in better living conditions and increased well-being for needy individuals.

Mayanie Yeatie Koroma is a legal practitioner who works with ILRAJ

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