Water and women’s rights in Ethiopia: Fatuma’s story

If you’re curious about the connection between clean water and women’s rights, meet Fatuma. She is a living embodiment of what can happen when a woman is released from the shackles of domestic chores.

Fatuma lives in Afdera  in north-eastern Ethiopia: the hottest inhabited place on earth. There is no fresh water for 200km. The people of Afar drink groundwater from streams or wells, but depending on the season, the water sources are often miles away and, all year round, the water collected from them is salty.

Those who can afford it drink water trucked in from the far-off town of Logia. But too many can’t afford the price of fresh water. The price they pay instead is kidney disease, swollen ankles, hypertension and a life expectancy of just 47.

And water collection is a daily chore that falls solely on women and girls.

All my life, since I was a young girl, I walked miles every day for water. The only time I had a day off were on the days I gave birth. We would get up at dawn, and return at midday. For those who lived in Afdera, we walked such long distances.

Fatuma’s daily burden of water weighted up to 30 kilos at a time. To put it in perspective, that’s the equivalent of the UK luggage allowance on a long haul flight, tied to her back with ropes.

Women and girls at a water collection point in Ethiopia
Fatuma enjoying a joke at the water collection point

In 2014, CARE engineered a solution: a desalination plant which takes water from the nearby salt lake, removes the salt, and pipes it to Fatuma’s town of Afdera, providing clean, fresh water close to people’s homes. Local people are trained as engineers to maintain the plant and pipe the water into the local community, and with the water flows economic empowerment, good health, and freedom.

When we drink this water, we feel like we are drinking milk. That’s how great the difference is. Before, the salty water gave us diseases. It tasted terrible and made our food taste bad. Now, our water is like rainwater from heaven!

And what does Fatuma do with all the time she no longer spends walking for water? “We can do many things now. As the town grows, we have other opportunities – income-generating activities, paid work. I work as a cleaner and I have a salary. This is the first time I have had a job – I work for the government, for the office of health. My husband works as a guard for the electric corp.”

Before, women did not have a chance to go to school, or work. Now things are changing for the better. Girls are going to school!

With the time she now has, Fatuma is doing something incredible for her community. “At the district level, we have an office of women’s affairs. I am my community’s representative. Now when women’s issues are raised, we discuss them. If women have personal issues they can go to the women’s office, the office can provide help. They organise meetings, and I attend on behalf of women in my community. When there is a meeting with a representative from parliament, I will meet them and discuss our issues.

“Most of the time, we discuss women’s rights to get involved in politics. We want women to come out and vote. We want women to be elected. We want them to form co-operatives.

“For most of my life, women didn’t have any options. As girls, we were only there to help our families and when we grew up, to get married and help our husband’s family. There was nothing to look forward to.”

Now, girls go to school, now we talk about democracy for women, now we see women getting employed.

“Having water has increased opportunities for all women, most of all the poorest ones. The ones who used to walk for miles for water. Life has improved greatly for us. But if you could see the other communities, the ones with no water… the women are suffering greatly.”

I wish you could see their struggle. We wish for those women the same opportunities we have.

Fatuma has four daughters, two of whom are married. What are her hopes for her daughters’ future? “I hope they will have a good life. I know it will be better than mine. The youngest two are going to school.”

We would not want to go back to our old life. They will not go back.

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