Bringing men and women together to jointly discuss community challenges
In Yemen it is virtually unheard of for men and women to come together in public to discuss problems in the community. However a Generation Dialogue process in Amran Governate succeeded in doing this, bringing men and women of different generations together to consider how to improve communal management of water and sanitation.
Water scarcity and access to water and sanitation are urgent problems in Yemen. Just over half of Yemenis have access to improved sources of water and sanitation, and the average annual per capita consumption of water is far below internationally established threshold for ‘water stress.’ This makes it imperative that existing water supplies are carefully managed.
Women and girls are most heavily affected by the shortage of water services, because they bear the responsibility for fetching water for cooking, cleaning, washing and bathing. In Amran Governate, in the north-central highlands of Yemen, is not uncommon for women and girls to make up to six trips a day for water. One in five women travel between 30 and 60 minutes to reach a water source. Fetching water is time-consuming, physically strenuous, and stressful: wells are often overcrowded and fighting can break out.
Reconnecting with traditions of communal water management
Yemen has a long history of communal water and sanitation management, but some of these traditions have been lost, or weakened, over time. Members of the younger generation in particular tend to rely upon government-led water interventions and are slow to recognise that community-based initiatives can help to mitigate problems related to water and sanitation.
In 2008 the (former) GTZ ‘Community-based Water Use in Water Scarce Areas’ project and GFA Consulting, in an effort to strengthen community initiatives in Amran Governate, adapted the Generation Dialogue methodology to promote and foster communication and reflection between the generations and the sexes on issues of water and sanitation. The Dialogue aimed to draw attention to useful traditions which were no longer being passed on from one generation to the other, to encourage community members to work together to address water and sanitation problems, and to foster better communication between the sexes and generations.
Water and sanitation as an entry point for better community cooperation
Although the Generation Dialogue had a thematic focus on water and sanitation, its benefits went far beyond this specific area. The underlying idea was to engage diverse members of the community in a positive experience of effective communication, where older and younger community members, men and women, all felt listened to and respected.
During the Dialogue process, which begins with Community Consultations in generation- and sex-specific groups, and then moves to single sex groups which mix generations, each of these four groups (younger, older, male and female) had the opportunity to contribute and to feel that their contributions were valued. Through these sessions, each group became aware of the way tasks and responsibilities are divided in the community, and what problems are experienced, by whom and where. Slowly, they began to form a vision of how they as individuals and groups could contribute to resolving these problems and identified the support they would need from other community groups to do this more effectively.
An unprecedented event
Perhaps the most significant change happened at the Public Meeting, which is organised for community leaders and the community as a whole when the Dialogue sessions have been completed. At this meeting the Dialogue Champions publicly presented their ‘pledges’ to improve communal management of water and sanitation and put their ‘requests’ for contributions to local authorities and other community representatives. As usual in Yemeni villages, only men and boys assembled for this meeting. Two representatives of the female Dialogue Champions had been given special permission by the village headman to also present at this meeting, which was broadcast across the village and the surrounding area via loudspeaker.
The other female Dialogue Champions and the female villagers watched from their rooftops and hid behind trees in the hills behind the local school to be able to follow the proceedings. When the two female representatives made a point of explicitly greeting the ‘invisible women’, the village headman made an unexpected decision. He invited the female Dialogue Champions to leave their hiding places and join the meeting where they could sit inside the classroom while the men remained in the courtyard. And so it happened: the female Dialogue Champions came down the hill and walked through the schoolyard and into the class oom in one long row.
The joint Public Meeting was an unprecedented event in this area of Amran Governate, and it has since been followed by many more such joint village meetings. This outcome of the Dialogue process in Amran demonstrates the power of an approach grounded in listening and respect.