By Shifo Sharifzoda, Consultant and Trainer, Consumers Union of Tajikistan

Over the last two years, the Consumers Union of Tajikistan has implemented the Tajikistan Water Improving Social Accountability (TWISA) project, with support and funding from Oxfam UK and the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA). The project aims to improve social accountability in the water sector through the development of quality standards and citizen participation in monitoring of water service provision. In support of this aim, the Consumers Union facilitated consolidation of service performance indications in Water Supply and Sanitation , created Community Advisory Boards under water providers in the targeted areas of the project to ensure close collaboration between consumers and provider in solving problems the water sector, and conducted various trainings, seminars and awareness raising campaigns to build the capacity of consumers and water providers’ staff.

As problems in the water sector have a disproportionate effect on women and children, we recognized the need to have separate trainings for women, as a result of cultural norms and social values in Tajikistan, and so we began holding special trainings for local women in both urban and rural areas across the country. At the end of each training and seminar, we solicit feedback on how the knowledge and information they received during these trainings have impacted their lives thus far. We consistently hear that the trainings have had a significant, positive impact on their wellbeing. Women note that the education they receive during the trainings has raised their self-esteem and ability to participate actively in public decision-making processes in the water and sanitation sector. Now, women say that staff from their local water provider cannot over-charge or miss-calculate their water bills, as they have the ability to calculate the fees themselves. This is especially important for women whose husbands are labor migrants working abroad, leaving them as the heads of households. One woman proudly said how she shares the knowledge she gained in the seminars with her neighbors and friends, gives advice on their rights as consumers, and helps them to write formal complaints to water providers when problems arise.

The importance of activities like these, both in Tajikistan and other countries in the region, led to a focus on gendered issues in water management at the European and Central Asian (ECA) Regional Forum in Social Accountability in the Water Sector, which was held from May 23-25 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The forum was organized by Oxfam International in collaboration with the GPSA and the World Bank’s Water Partnership Program (WPP), and was attended by approximately 90 participants from the ECA region and other countries, including representatives from the Government of Tajikistan, civil society organizations, international development agencies, and Oxfam and World Bank staff .

On the second day of the forum, a session was devoted to a discussion of gender aspects of the water sector. Hosted by Stephanie de Chassy from Oxfam UK, the session included four panelists, including myself. Each panelist shared their stories about women engaging in water management at the international, national, organizational, and individual level. Takhmina Azizova, Project Manager at the Poverty & Environment Initiative at UNDP in Tajikistan, talked about how to bring the global agenda laid out by the Sustainable Development Goals to the national level and integrate them into Tajikistan’s national development goal strategies. Diana Iskreeva, Board Member of Earth Forever in Bulgaria, emphasized the lack of adequate sanitation, in schools particularly, as a key reason why many girls drop out of school between the ages of 11-13. Diana Ismailova, Gender Coordinator of OXFAM in Tajikistan, discussed the need to pay attention to the challenges faced by female employees in civil society organizations as the difficulties they face can have significant impact on the success of projects. I spoke about the barriers and challenges that limit women’s active participation in water management and decision making processes in the sector. This session was well attended by Forum participants and they were actively involved in the discussion, sharing their stories and bringing examples of gender issues from their own lives.

However, attention to gender during the Forum was not limited to this session. It was also a topic of the panel discussion on Social Accountability in WASH sector in Tajikistan.  This panel was moderated by Orkhan Aliev,  TWISA Project Manager from OXFAM UK, jointly with Ilhom Abidov, Executive Director of Consumers Union, Taghoimurod Gulov, Head of the Department for Water Resources from the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources of the Republic of Tajikistan, Gulsumbi Bakhtirova who is a community mobilizer from Farkhor district, and Olambi Latifova, chairman of Community Advisory Board in Muminabad district, and myself. The discussions touched on topics such as government engagement in social accountability, impact of the TWISA project on service provision in the water supply and sanitation sector, as well as the influence of these activities on women’s wellbeing.

Acknowledging the important role women play in water conservation and rational use of water resources, this Forum provided an important opportunity to share knowledge regarding the challenges women face in water management, as well as strategies to tackle these issues in water sector, including strengthening social accountability.