On this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8th, German Water Partnership launched its new column “Women in Water”. Together with interview partners from the international water sector, the association shines a light on the role of women in the still predominantly male water supply and sanitation sector. The interview series aims to make women more visible in the industry and encourage young professionals to pursue a career in the field.
In the second edition we sat down with Leticia Ackun, gender specialist at the African Water Association. Leticia, a trained nurse, started out as a hygiene and training officer with a private Consultancy firm, HMC Limited. She then worked for 13 years as an Extension Services Specialist with the Community Water and Sanitation Agency, a government agency in charge of providing water and sanitation services to rural communities and small towns. Recently, she worked with UNICEF, Global Communities and other NGOs as a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and Behaviour Change Communication (BCC) specialist respectively for more than 10 years. She holds a degree in Nursing followed by an MPhil in Development studies and a PhD in Sociology.
As gender specialist at the African Water Association (AfWA), please briefly describe your role.
Leticia: I have been a gender specialist at AfWA for over a year, after the organization became aware of a significant gender gap. My role is to mainstream gender into AfWA policies, programmes, operations, and structures and ensure that there is increase in female representation at decision making levels. Currently, I am developing a gender strategy which is meant to be implemented across all levels. Our goal as an organization is to make AfWA a gender sensitive and inclusive organization with increased women participation in decision making at all levels within AfWA and its member utilities. We hope to address and overcome the gender gap, and make sure it is considered in all programming and planning. In addition, we strive to attract young girls to the WASH sector and work towards the retention and growth of women professionals through career fairs in schools, capacity building, mentorship and coaching programmes.
A career in the water sector: What led you to choose this path?
Leticia: I started my professional life as a nurse as I was always interested in public health. At some point of my school life, I met a visiting lecturer who worked with the World Health Organization, UNICEF and other NGOs as a private consultant. Her work was very inspiring to me, and I quickly realized that I was more interested in working with preventive care rather than curative. Because the lack of clean water and poor sanitation have a major influence on public health, I decided to enter the WASH sector to work on improving the situation.
Last year, AfWA launched the digital women’s forum. Tell us a bit about it.
Leticia: Research has shown that women are underrepresented, especially in male dominated fields such as the water and engineering industry. When women are employed, it is mostly on an administrative level and not in leadership positions. What stands out here is the recruitment and retention challenges. Young girls are often not encouraged to follow a career path in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) related fields, and there are a lack of gender role models and mentors. Technical job offers, work schedules and training opportunities also are tailored towards men. If work environments continue to be non-inclusive, limited numbers of women will enter the workforce. Even if they do, given the circumstances, they may not be able to pursue an extended career, live to their potential, and contribute to the upliftment of their communities.
The digital women’s forum was created as one of the means to address this issue. Its goal is to mobilize women networks in the WASH sector to encourage their participation in the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar and also for future collaborations. It looks at the capacities and strengths of women in the sector but at the same time examines existing issues and discusses how to make the female workforce more visible. It is meant to bring women together across the globe, build alliances and partnerships and offer mentoring and coaching opportunities. Two webinars were organized with over 400 participants from around the world. It was great to see so many motivated women come together to share ideas and make input into a side event for women at the World Water Forum.
From your personal experience, what is your advice to young women who wish to pursue a career in the water sector?
Leticia: It is important that once they enter the sector, they identify female and male professionals in their field who can mentor them. Using the network around you is crucial for success. I would tell them to be curious, hard-working, and willing to learn on the job. These should be combined with the relevant academic qualification to achieve the ultimate in their carrier pursuit. They should go the extra mile and advance their knowledge by earning certificates or expanding their education degree. The right academic qualification and skills are key if you want to climb up the ladder and not stay in one place or position for the whole of your career. Don’t look for favors, but leave an impression based on your unique set of skills!
What does water mean to you?
Leticia: Water is life and a human right. Without water we cannot survive. It needs to be preserved if we want humanity to survive on the earth. It is a cleanser, a refreshener – to me, it is as important as air. We should all be concerned about it and make an effort not to pollute it, so it can be preserved for generations to come. We should aim at creating a sustainable environment where all living things can thrive.
German Water Partnership e.V. (GWP) is a network of around 300 companies and institutions from German industry and research in the water sector. With the column “Women in Water”, the association enters an exchange with international industry representatives and shows the everyday professional life of women in the male-dominated sector. In the next issue we look forward to a conversation with Dr. Gesche Grützmacher from Berliner Wasserbetriebe.