Sex for water: Zombo women’s tales of water scarcity.
todayNovember 5, 2021
By Ronald Orachwun The months between November to February are always dry in several parts of Sub Saharan Africa. It is so dry and hot in other areas including parts of Uganda that finding decent water for drinking is a struggle and time consuming for an estimated 62 percent of women and girls in Sub Saharan Africa who bear the burden of fetching water in most households. But experts warn that this makes them vulnerable to harassment, sexual assault or abuse or even being killed. Close to eight years after the 6th target of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals SDG on access to clean and safe water and sanitation was born at the United Nations conference on SDGs in 2012 in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, developing countries are still grappling with access to clean water. The women of Ullalu village, Zeu Sub County Zombo district are among those who face higher risks of rape because they have to walk long distances in search of clean water. Since the content of this story contains sexual assault, we will call her Beatrice, a previously beaming, hardworking and a young newly married woman full of energy. Beatrice was only 24 years old when she was chased from her home in December 2019 by her husband with whom she had stayed for only 3 months after their traditional marriage that was at the center of envy by every youth in the village and in the neighborhood. Close relatives said the man could not stand the stigma and shame of living with a woman who was molested by strangers. The man also feared contracting HIV/AIDS just in case his new bride contracted it from the strangers. Beatrice’s story is one of the many told by victims of rape who were sexually abused by unidentified men as they go about looking for water for their households. My one hour interview with her turned into grief, as the memory of her ordeal with some strangers still appears fresh to her. To date she calls it a mystery. “I have moved and seen so many prostitutes around especially in these urban centers around us. But that is their choice. For someone who has been married and has had a piece of what I went through is not easy and still remains a mystery to me. Mine was worst because I was raped by three men as I was coming back from a dug out well where I went to fetch water for my home. You know here we have a big problem of water scarcity. No borehole and the only way to survive is cross to the well for you to get water that is even not safe enough for domestic consumption”, she said before she broke in tears. That day, she stayed home and worked herself out the whole day with chores as any hard working newly married woman would do, putting her entire evening behind schedule. By the time she realized that she barely had water in the house, it was already 8pm and dark, meaning she had to walk alone to the only nearby well which is about 800 meters away from her home. Armed with a torch and two jerry cans in her hands, she raced the distance down to the well weaving through the thick scary narrow walk way just after crossing the Zeu-Paidha-Nebbi road but still unsure of what she would meet along the murky journey. The well is the only available nearby source of water as she didn’t want to sleep without water to start off the following day. She dipped all her two jerry cans in the well at once to draw water but she was not only lucky not to be bitten by a snake, but also survived drowning as the weight of the two jerry cans pulled her back into the water. She dumped the two jerry cans but managed to get hold of one wooden rail of the well. Somehow with the help of the small torch she was carrying, she managed to pull one jerry can and moved out of the water. She however ran out of lack when four men who she couldn’t recognize attacked her few meters after she left the well. They blocked the walk way and she pointed the torch’s flash light direct into their eyes before one of them grabbed her neck, another held her legs while the other beat her up and immediately undressed her. Her attempts to call for help fell on deaf ears as there was no one in sight at that time of the evening. She recalls how three men raped her in turns. “It is not easy living with memories of being gang raped. This is the pain I have to live with for the rest of my life. The memory of one man on top of you and you are still imagining that two or three of the men are already erect and waiting for their turns. I cry everyday whenever I recall these nasty memories. I have even resented men since that dreadful evening just because of what happened to me. Well I tried to fight but they over powered me and put me down. As they say the rest is history”, she said as she broke down once again. Beatrice was discovered at dawn lying unconscious by people she recalled lived just within the neighborhood. “I couldn’t move after that awful incident. At some point I felt life was gradually getting out of me. Two men just within the neighborhood while on the way to their farm lands met me at around 6am that’s when I realized I was not at home, but still movement was a little difficult”, she recalls. Fast forward, two months after that horrifying incident, confused and without any idea of where to run, Beatrice discovered that she was pregnant for one of the strangers. She couldn’t stand the shame of going back to her father’s house in Paidha, the district’s major town carrying another man’s child besides the man she was married to. But all the same, Beatrice who is now single handedly taking care of her child was dismissed by her husband from the house five months after he returned from Kyeyo in South Sudan from where he was making a living as a casual laborer. Residents in the area say several of their calls for the local government to sink a nearby borehole or a shallow well to arrest the situation have fallen on deaf ears.
Zeu Sub County currently has an 81 percent access to clean and safe water but several residents in the Sub County and other parts of the district are facing difficulties in accessing water points due to long distances. A number of residents especially women and girls who bear the most burden of fetching water face a huge risk of sexual harassment and death in search of clean water. This is not the first time such a thing happened in the area and neither will it be the last as some residents say. Much as a number of the residents say living here is fun, many have refused to vacate the village despite all the associated risks. The situation is not different from Acoro village in Jupamathu Parish in the neighboring Akaa Sub County which is predominantly occupied by the Lendu minority tribe and located on the peripheries of Uganda-Democratic of Congo border with no clean water, forcing residents to trek distances. The two places are filled with available fertile land for farming. Their green beauty and quietness are all attractions to whoever dares to find a home in them. The young girls here are trained to know domestic chores as early as 10-13 years or even more. This is inclusive of the mandatory roles of fetching water, while the young boys are trained into strong farmers and hunters. But over time, the women and girls have grown to face more risks than their male counterparts as threats of rape and defilement have become so rampant especially as they move about looking for water for their households. As the people of Ullalu village in Zeu Sub County were still struggling to come to terms with the rampant rape cases, another unthinkable incident happened. This time it was 18 year old Rose, a resident of Acoro village Akaa Sub County who always envied becoming a doctor, was raped in broad day light by men of the same area while she was on her usual water searching spree. The situation was almost the same to the ordeal the women and girls of Ullalu village in the neighboring Zeu Sub County go through to fetch water. Rose was raped by a man seemingly in his late 30’s. The two men sprung up on her way to a shallow well which serves a population of over 350 people in the village. “One of the men forced me to flirt with him but he forcefully raped me when I refused. One threatened that he would be the one to rape me the next time we meet. And this went on for about two weeks because they threatened to kill me if I ever report them to anybody. Coercive sex was my food to buy my freedom even when I wanted to fetch water from any source of water in any part of the village, they would follow me”, she said. The area LC1 chairperson Okumu Etien says cases of women and girls being sexually harassed by unknown people over water have become rampant. “We have many of these cases especially during the dry seasons where some of our women are almost raped if not that some of them have devised simple self-defense mechanisms. Besides the health impacts of using dirty water for domestic purposes, our women and girls are facing untold suffering by people who sexually harass them. We have pleaded with our local authorities to improve the water situation but nothing is done to that effect”, he said.
Grim water insecurity in Zombo. While explaining the water challenges in Acoro village, Jennifer Obima, a resident of the area said, “By January 2020, we had only two shallow wells constructed here in October 2006 and they were serving over 75 households. And one of them was abandoned last year because a snake was killed and dump in the water and left to rot, so people feared to use it, while this one you see here (points to the well) is shared with animals. People fetch water from it during the day while some animals come here and do their things during evening or even during night hours. It becomes even more challenging when the animals play in it up to morning as it becomes very dirty that you can’t do anything unless you allow it to settle. The only available option is that we have some energetic men who fetch water for us here at a cost of 500 shs per jerry can and this becomes very costly because we are not working and where are you going to get that money”, she said. Adding: “The water problem is in a way that if you do not look for it anywhere during day time, then expect to sleep without water and that means a lot for your home. You should pray very hard that there should be no emergency that needs water especially during night hours”. The situation is so grim that Life Concern, a local human rights Non-Governmental Organization NGO based in Paidha town, Zombo district has so far referred between 20-28 cases of sexual violence against women and girls to Paidha Central Police Station since the beginning of the year, most of which are perpetuated by either members of the community or members of the same household. According to media reports, Zombo district recorded 428 cases of defilement and rape between the months of April and August 2020, according to statistics from Zombo district probation and welfare office including that of the Child and Family protection Unit at Paidha Central Police Station. Some of these vices are committed as the women and girls go about with their routine domestic chores including searching for water and others. “We have referred almost 30 cases of harassment against women and girls to Police since the year began due to the nature of the crimes. We strongly believe that so many other cases remain unreported within the community. You know people fear to open up if it comes to sexual offences but if we are to do more thorough research, then we are going to find out that several people especially women and girls are suffering silently in most villages across the district. Now some of the cases are also associated with scenarios of harassment at the time of looking for water”, says Stella Biryema, the Human Rights and Gender officer at Life Concern LICO.
But what explains this heinous trend? Gloria Awekonimungu, the program facilitator at Africa Water Solution AWS, a partner of the local government in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene WASH in the greater Nebbi area says a combined over 6,000 residents in Ullalu village in Zeu Sub County and Acoro village in Akaa Sub County lack access to clean and safe water. “Almost all the water sources in these areas are seasonal streams which partially dry up especially during the dry seasons and that this leaves so many of our people here without clean and safe water for domestic use. Take for instance the village of Gombiri in Athuma Sub County, the people here shared a stream with animals for over a decade now if not for our intervention which later forced the district to drill one borehole at this place. And our women and girls who are so much into fetching water find it hard because they are harassed on the way as they go about looking for water. I think we should we should also begin questioning what the budget allocations for water to the Sub Counties and the district are doing”, she said. Adding: “We currently have a program of promoting clean and safe water harvesting in schools like Alala and Awasi Primary schools in Jangokoro Sub County, Mavura Primary school in Athuma Sub County, Paluo in Zeu and Mundhel in Nyapea Sub Counties. Now in the near future to supplement government efforts in providing clean and safe water, we are having in plan a community water initiative of providing water tanks for selected people in the most affected areas to address the water challenge”, she said.
The figures The October 2020 Twaweza Uganda’s report shows that rural households spend much longer time collecting water, as do households which use surface water. 28 percent of Ugandans named distance to water points as their main challenge, with an overall 1 out of 20 (4%) Ugandans reported that they or a member of their household had dysentery in the past month and 1 out of 10 (9%) say the same about typhoid. Marie Nanyanzi of Sauti za Wananchi at Twaweza, said: “Citizens continue to highlight the challenges they face in terms of access to water at consistent levels as last year, saying: “Focusing on preventive maintenance of water points in rural areas can help address the underlying challenges of access.”
According to the 2014 National Population and Housing Census, an average of 34.9 percent of residents in Zombo district lacked access to clean and safe drinking water, with a number of them resorting to water sources like streams which are often times shared with livestock. For instance 319 out of the over 199,000 water points in rural areas in Zombo district are non-functional for over 5 years, leaving many people especially the women and girls who bear the burden of fetching water at huge risks of sexual violence, with over 10 women and girls sexually harassed annually in Acoko village during dry seasons, according to estimates from area leaders.
Official’s take Brian Oromcan, the LC3 chairperson Akaa Sub County says a number of people in most of the Sub County lack water for domestic use. “Access to water for home use has been a major challenge for our people here especially in the dry season because most of us use running water from the valleys and some of them dry up at the onset of the dry seasons. So most of us especially our women are forced to trek long distances of over 1km to look for water. Though we have the gravity flow scheme at Akaa hill which started distributing water to homes just this year, most of the villages still don’t have water. For instance Omiyo, Nyarka, Omoyo West and East, Mawa East and Jupangua East and West villages are all areas which don’t have water in them. People are using running water here”, he said. He attributes the persistent water scarcity in most parts of the Sub County to inadequate funds. “We don’t have enough funds to provide enough clean and safe water for our people here. We receive only around 3.5 million shs from the district every quarter for water services. And this money is not used for water in every village, it is only one village which benefits from this money which is used for either establishing new spring water sources or rehabilitating existing ones to the level that can be consumed by the majority. But in the next Financial Year, we are thinking of expanding the water coverage to some areas including those that are in dire need of it. But going by the figures that we receive every quarter, the money cannot cover all the villages at once”, he said.
Budgetary allocation for water. According to records, Zombo district received a total of over 295 million shs under water and sanitation department in the 2018/19 Financial Year. Part of this money was channeled to sinking a total of around 10 boreholes. The district also laid down a 25.8 billion shillings budget in the 2019/20 Financial Year, with 0.006 billion meant for drilling 9 deep boreholes in Athuma, Alangi and Akaa Sub Counties and the subsequent rehabilitation of 17 boreholes. But Gloria Awekonimungu, the program facilitator at Africa Water Solution AWS says this is too meager to achieve the desired target. “We still have a long to go in regards to provision of water in most villages in Zombo district. The budget allocation to water is just too meager that the set target will not be achieved within the stipulated time frame if you look critically at the situation on the ground. But also I have disagreed with government so many times with this thing of allocating almost half of the budget for paying salaries to staff. And that leaves you with the question of if the remaining money will be able to provide the services on the ground. I think we should deviate from this budgeting tendency. We should be able to allocate more money to do developmental activities on the ground rather than leaving a small part of the budget to do this. It is very paramount to make efficient budget allocations if the planned outcomes are to be achieved”, she said. But all the same a number of residents in the district that we interacted with say there is only one obvious way to end this: More reliable nearby water sources such as boreholes or springs must be established.
COVER PHOTO: A girl fetches water from one of the dugout water points in Ullalu village Zeu Sub County Zombo district. A number of women have been harassed at the same water point. Photo By Ronald Orachwun