How does irrigation help women be heard?

After participating in Ethiopia's SWEEP project one woman said, “We are now heard; before we used to only listen.” 

“We are now heard; before we used to only listen.” That’s what one woman says about Ethiopia’s SWEEP project. How does irrigation help women be heard? When you think about gender equality as part of water and the environment.

Getting men involved and reducing women’s burdens makes a huge difference, too. “When I visit my neighbours, I see the wife making food and the husband cleaning up the kids, or vice versa. That was unheard of just five years ago.” Or think about the woman who said, “I no more warm water and wash my husband’s feet. This has become a history.”

Because of these changes, women spend fewer hours every day getting water and doing household chores. What did those women do with the extra time? They raised their average income 8.5 times, and organized to cut violence in half in their communities.

The SWEEP project (Water for Food Security, Women’s Empowerment, and Environmental protection) ran in Ethiopia from 2017-2020. It reached 134,000 people with $3.2 million in support from the Austrian Development Agency.

What changed?

  • Doubled access to safe water. At the beginning of the project, 26% of people had access to safe water. By the end, 55% of people had safe water. 5 times more families had access to latrines
  • Incomes are 8.5 times higher. Average income went up to 29,021 birr ($594 US)—8.5 times more than at baseline.
  • Families have enough food more often. 84% of families said they have enough food to last 8 months out of the year. When the project started, ZERO families had enough food to last even 5 months of the year. 55% of families can eat 3 meals a day, and 96% can eat two meals a day.
  • Saved women time. The number of women who had to travel more than an hour to get water dropped from 78% to 37%--half as many women spending hours a day getting water.
  • Women participate more. Women are five times more likely to be part of major financial decisions in their families—up to 51% of women. As one woman said, “Before, men used to sell valuable items without consulting us. We have no power then except crying. But now, if they do it without consulting us, we argue and often times succeed in making them change their decision.”
  • Women lead in their communities. The number of women in leadership positions nearly doubled—from 56% to 93%. As one woman said, “We are now heard; before we used to only listen.”
  • Men accept women’s leadership. Many more men believe women can be leaders: “They have no fear to express their views. They report quickly when they face challenges. They also manage the finances better than we do.”
  • Men are picking up the workload. Men are 3 times more likely to collect firewood, twice as likely to do laundry, and 40 times more likely to be cleaning the house than they were when the project started. That means the number of women who have to spend less than 10 hours a day on housework is 2.8 times higher than before the pandemic.
  • Violence is going down. Gender-based violence dropped by 70%, from 96% to 28%. Child marriage also dropped significantly, from 22% to 6%.
  • Families are more resilient. Families were 70 times more likely to say they could cope with economic shocks.
  • People have better relationships with the government. People are nearly 4 times as likely to say that the local government considered their needs, and 7.5 times more likely to say that they are satisfied with local government services.

How did it happen?

  • Let communities lead. The project focused on community leadership and direction. In the words of one participant, “They [project staffs] allowed us to identify our problems … and engage in various income-generating activities based on own interest and demand.” The project also had 31 Community Scorecard sessions with 1,848 people, and 341 WASH committees with 3,763 members.
  • Focus on equality. 30 Social Analysis and Action committees in 8 kebeles worked on gender equality and social norms to improve women’s leadership and protect women and girls.
  • Build water infrastructure. The project built 134 water schemes and repaired 208 so people could irrigate 329 hectares. They also passed out 2,469 water filtration kits, including 991 that went to support people with disabilities.
  • Set up savings groups. 101 savings groups with 2,132 members saved $24,000 US (1.2 million ETB). On top of that, 133 VSLA groups formed on their own because they were inspired by the groups with SWEEP.
  • Work together: The project partnered with many different local actors, including Offices of Water, Irrigation and Energy; Agriculture, Finance and Economy, Disaster Prevention and Food Security Coordination, Women, Children and Youth, Micro and Small-Scale Enterprise Coordination, Land Administration and Environmental protection, and Government Communication and Administration. The team also worked with Bahir Dar University to expand community outreach efforts.

Want to read more?

Check out the final evaluation and the gender assessment.