“Sex for Water: What Price Are Women Paying?”…The challenges are a result of acute water shortages in recent times due to “changing weather patterns and aging facilities.” Males in control of water sources and access began to proposition girls for sex (not only money) in exchange for water, especially at night. Girls who reject their overtures are forced to return without water and some of the girls are physically attacked.
“Water no get enemy”, sang the late Nigerian bard, Fela Kuti, using the local pidgin English and Yoruba languages to press home his point. Indeed, who on God’s earth can do without water and remain alive? According to Fela, “T’o ba fe lo we omi l’o ma’lo/If you want go wash, [n]a water you go use./T’o ba fe se’be omi l’o ma’lo /If you want cook soup, [n]a water you go use.” He concludes: “Ko s’ohun to’le se k’oma l’omi/ Nothing without water.” Indeed, access to safe water is a human right that governments are obligated to guarantee citizens, globally.
Resolution 64/292 of the United Nations passed on July 28, 2010, recognises the human right to water and sanitation, stipulating that each human being requires 50 to 100 litres of water per day to meet their basic water needs. Also, the water source should be at the furthest, 1000 metres from homes and collection time should not exceed 30 minutes; to collect and return home. Also, water costs should not exceed 3 per cent of the household income. These all sound good on paper but far from the reality of the lives of many; especially the poor who make up a larger percentage of the population.
Like most areas of life, access to potable, safe water is political, and it is about power. The rich have unhindered access to this commodity because even when governments do not provide safe public water, they have the means and the power to fund professionally dug boreholes, including industrial boreholes to meet their everyday water needs. But not so with the poor. In places like Nigeria, where according to the 2019 WASH-NORM report, “Only 9 per cent of the population have access to complete basic WASH [water, sanitation, and hygiene] services. Those living in rural areas are two times more disadvantaged than those in urban areas” (National Bureau of Statistics & UNICEF), the stakes are much steeper for the poor to access safe water and for they and, especially their children, to stay healthy.
Ever since I conducted research late last year, investigating the gendered vulnerabilities associated with access to water, sanitation, and hygiene in the Ilaje-Bariga area of urban Lagos, close to one of the Nigeria’s premier and federal universities, I have pondered the plight of households in the poorer quantiles of the population in accessing safe water for their daily needs. The water poverty is high, and the terrain hostile to the popular practice of digging of boreholes, which most households depend on in Nigeria, and which has strong environmental implications. With the right kind of resources, one can dig high quality boreholes and set up water purification systems in tough, water-logged terrains like Lekki and Banana Island but in Ilaje-Bariga with a similar terrain, all most residents can afford is to dig shallow wells and boreholes that do not reach deep enough to assure safe water. The majority are forced to purchase the household supply of water from vendors who supply gallons of water using hand-drawn carts.
More petrifying is that households pay for the gallons of water supplied by the vendors while being quite oblivious of the actual source of water they are paying for! Most depend on pure water (water packaged in 50cl nylon bags) often from questionable sources, even when they appear to carry the government approved National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) number. No one is sure of the quality of most of this packaged water. But there are few affordable alternatives. In fact, due to costs, some residents drink the water from the shallow boreholes and wells.
The roles and responsibilities of women and girls expose them to the greater line of fire when governments are deficient in meeting the needs of consumers, especially where water and sanitation are concerned. Women and girls are mostly responsible for household chores – cooking, washing, cleaning, sanitation, child-nursing, and others, which require the daily use of substantial quantities of water. As the late bard, Fela, reiterated in his song with an all-time appeal, “Water no get enemy”, you need water to nurse a child and even as that child grows, there never comes a time when water is no longer a necessity. Even if a child dies by drowning, one will still use water on that child.
The bodily impact of water poverty tells more on girls than boys. Girls and women menstruate and need water to assure hygiene. Girls and women are also imprisoned by social discourses around femalehood. Many women and girls would not dare to step out for the day without a bath and may even miss school and work for that reason. But as the girls observed, boys would easily wash their faces and feet and step out for the day, not so for the girls…
It is true that boys and girls (from about age six) both fetch water for their households, sometimes going late for school or missing school entirely. The children lamented that immediately after school, they would begin the water-fetching chore which may progress for as much as two hours, continuing late into the evening, as they go back and forth trying to fill up water drums and other containers for household use. This chore exposes the girls, especially, to different forms of violence and harassment and the boys to fist fights. The girls noted that thereafter, the boys would be at liberty to face their homework. But the girls must join their mothers to carry out other domestic chores, preparing dinner and washing up, thereafter.
The bodily impact of water poverty tells more on girls than boys. Girls and women menstruate and need water to assure hygiene. Girls and women are also imprisoned by social discourses around femalehood. Many women and girls would not dare to step out for the day without a bath and may even miss school and work for that reason. But as the girls observed, boys would easily wash their faces and feet and step out for the day, not so for the girls, who lamented the impact of carrying huge water containers on their heads and how this affects the shape of their heads, necks, and their body image. Females carry huge burdens due to social expectations.
“Sex for Water: What Price Are Women Paying?” This troubling headline caught my attention – from an article by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) News on April 26, analysing the challenges that women and girls face accessing water in Kibera, a low-income community in Kenya. The challenges are a result of acute water shortages in recent times due to “changing weather patterns and aging facilities.” Males in control of water sources and access began to proposition girls for sex (not only money) in exchange for water, especially at night. Girls who reject their overtures are forced to return without water and some of the girls are physically attacked. The pressure could become that bad, as with other forms of gender-based violence.
Women and girls, more than others, carry on their bodies the marks of government’s inefficiencies, whether in failing to supply water, sanitation, or other resources.
Arit Oku, a gender and development specialist, writes from Lagos.