Women’s Empowerment through Latrine Construction

If you’ve been following this blog, you already know that Nuru’s water and sanitation program staff members are developing a safe, low-cost latrine product here in Kuria, Kenya. Here’s a quick snapshot of where we are now:

  • We’ve selected our design. We’ve built a house-like “superstructure” with timbers and corrugated metal on a 1-by-1.5 meter “slab” (concrete platform) atop a rectangular pit constructed of bricks and mortar (the “lining”); the pit wall is 0.5 meters thick in order to support the slab weight.
  • We’ve trained our field officers. 19 women and men recruited from various communities comprise four construction crews equipped with skills and a set of tools to build latrines for their neighbors.
  • We’re currently testing our latrine product. Our team built latrines at Nuru’s maize buying stations, strategically located to reach remote, rural farmers. These latrines now serve as demonstration units to show the community that we can build low-cost latrines that are safe, long-lasting and nice-looking.

The neighbors have definitely taken notice of our latrine construction efforts, and they’re especially curious about our women team members.

The Neighbors’ Reaction

Whenever our field officer teams are out building latrines, a crowd of neighbors gather to watch. The neighbors are skeptical at first and wonder why we crush stones (we’re getting them just the right size to make a strong “dry concrete mix” as our partner CAWST trained us) and tediously make sure each pit measures exactly 1-by-1.5 meters. But, after they see the superstructure go up, how sturdy the slab is over the pit and how nice the whole thing looks, they turn from skeptics to admirers.

“How did you learn how to do this?” they ask our field officers. And the most common source of amazement:

“How did these mamas [women] learn how to do construction?”

Developing local expertise for building safe, low-cost latrines has had several side benefits. One is team bonding. It’s amazing how compacting concrete can bring people together and lead them to spontaneously burst into song and dance.

Another side benefit is empowering women.

Gender Context in Kuria

The Kuria tribe maintains strict traditions, keeping gender roles rigidly defined; women are responsible for cooking, cleaning, collecting water and firewood, caring for children (I could go on) and men are responsible for security of the family, construction of the home, and more. Most women have to ask their husbands for permission for most things and are told from a very young age to let the men do the talking. Our field manager, Eliza, enlightened me on the topic:

“According to Kurian culture, women should not speak in front of a group, especially not in front of a group of men. If she does, her husband will wonder [be concerned]…and people will call her a prostitute, thinking she has intentions with those men…”

Another example from Eliza:

“According to Kurian culture, it is not good for a woman to give feedback to a man. If I gave feedback to a husband and the parents heard…they would say, ‘This is not a wife; can you chase her away [sic].’”

How did it work for our teams of men and women field officers to do construction together? One woman named Catherine seized the opportunity.

The General Manager

Catherine Robi, a mother of three in her late twenties, is a tough lady with a great sense of humor. When construction starts, she’s the first one to take off her shoes (literally), grab a shovel and jump in. Catherine was unanimously voted as team leader and has been dubbed the “general manager” by her colleagues because she knows how to do every stage of construction and takes her work so seriously.

Catherine’s team was recently selected to lead a training for all the field officers on how to make a smooth slab (after we noticed her team’s slabs were the smoothest, look the nicest and are the easiest to clean – a commonly-voiced customer priority).

How did the men on our team react to women like Catherine rising to the construction challenge? They began to see the women in a new light.

The Men’s Response

As one man told me:

“Our women [at home] don’t do construction, so we didn’t think women could do this work. We are wondering at [impressed by] how the women on our team have come up [improved and learned how to do construction].”

Then, one day the women had a realization.

The Women’s Realization

Rosa, our field manager, shared this story during one of our construction debriefs:

“The women on our team, we realized that during construction sometimes we just watch the men…and Anne said of Nicole, ‘I see her using the measuring tape to take measurements and she’s not here right now. (I was on a few week break in the U.S.; good things seem to happen when I leave.) So, I think that the women, we can try to measure today.’”

Rioba, one of our oldest male team members, supported Anne’s idea:

“Today is your turn to measure.”

So on that day, the whole team decided the women should do every step.

Rosa admitted: “Digging the pit, it was very difficult.”

The men are not only accepting and affirming the women as they step up, but they’re also reaching out to teach the women what they know.

Men Empowering the Women

Pauline is a very timid soft-spoken mother of eight with very little education.  When she recently returned from maternity leave and showed up to our construction site with her newborn baby, Win (as in Winfreida), on her back, her team warmly welcomed her back and informed her that they’d be working on the latrine lining that day. Pauline pictured the lining of her dress and was very confused about why they were putting a polyester dress lining on a latrine. The team showed her how the lining was actually made of bricks and mortar. When I showed up to visit the team the following week, a field officer named Thomas was teaching Pauline how to split timbers in half with a wood saw to make the latrine door.

So, how is Nuru achieving such success at empowering women?

How Latrine Construction Led to Women’s Empowerment

A combination of factors has led to a women’s empowerment phenomenon on our team. One key factor is trust: our team members have developed close bonds during training and construction. They really care about one another and have become like family; when a baby is born or when a family member dies, all 22 of them take up a collection and travel to their team member’s home to have a meal and deliver the cash gift. They cheer one another on during construction as they learn a new skill, and they’re proud of how far they’ve come together as a team.

Another factor is leadership: we have two female field managers who lead by example and do their part during construction; they aren’t afraid to try what is traditionally considered to be men’s work.

As Eliza says: “You know, at Nuru women and men are the same.”

And back to the comment Eliza made about giving men feedback (above):

“If I practice giving feedback to Elias [our program leader], I can then do it with the men from the agriculture program and not fear.”

And, that’s definitely another factor: Elias, our program leader, works hard to create a positive and productive work environment for both women and men. He is delegating more and more “male” responsibilities to Eliza and Rosa (i.e. purchasing cement, timbers and tools).  And together, they make sure each member of our team is involved in whatever we’re doing. They shared their philosophy of teamwork and servant leadership with me:

“When it comes to construction, everyone should have something to do. And when we visit teams, we shouldn’t just sit and let the field officers do all the work. We should also be working together with them and giving them feedback in a good way on what they’re doing well and where they need improvement. We need to be servant leaders that way.”

We’ve discovered that an empowering work environment is built upon a foundation of trust, teamwork and servant leadership.  Who would have thought that a construction site would be a great place for women’s empowerment?

About Nicole Scott

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