Water is a Woman's Business in Indonesia's Aceh and Nias

Article | 3 March 2014

A water supply and sanitation project in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and Nias is giving women a 'voice' in water-related decision-making.

In the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra, women are the main collectors, users and managers of water. They are also primarily responsible for the health and hygiene of household members. In the public sphere of decision making about water supply and sanitation, however, women have limited voice. Why? Because in this cultural context, traditionally the public sphere of decision-making and leadership is "men's business" while the private sphere of home and family is "women's business".

Reconciling the two in traditional and largely sex-segregated communities such as Aceh and Nias can be challenging and time consuming, requiring a carefully crafted and culturally-sensitive approach. But it must be done to ensure success and long term project sustainability. An approach was needed to facilitate and ensure women's involvement and leadership in the planning, design, implementation and operation of water and sanitation facilities in the area.

Responding to disasters

In 2004-2005, two major disasters hit Indonesia within a six month period. On 26 December 2004 an earthquake and tsunami killed 130,000 in Aceh province, while on 28 May 2005 an earthquake hit the remote island of Nias in North Sumatra province, killing 850 people.

Among the damage to infrastructure, local water services were severely hit. Grant assistance was provided to rebuild community water systems in 400 villages in the heavily affected areas in Aceh Province and on Nias Island. The grant was linked to a loan for community services and health projects.

Using a community empowerment approach through the establishment of Community Implementation Teams (CIT), the project was designed to strengthen the communities', especially women's, capacity to plan, implement, manage, operate, and maintain water and sanitation facilities. As a start, the project gender action plan facilitated women's participation in the public sphere of decision-making.

Community facilitators were hired and trained in facilitation and sensitized to gender concerns. The facilitators were all recruited from the areas in which they would operate for easier communication in local languages. Nearly 50% of the facilitators were female, exceeding the minimum target of 30% indicated in the gender action plan.

The community facilitators and consultants helped the CITs make informed choices about the water supply system based on the desired quality and quantity of water, operation and maintenance requirements, and costs. The communities produced detailed community action plans for planning, construction, operation and maintenance, and establishment of user fees. The community action plans, including planned works, costs, and schedule, were publicly posted for transparency and accountability.

Great risks, greater returns

Adopting a gender-inclusive community based approach entailed great risks but promised greater returns. The conservative nature of some of the communities towards the participation of women posed risks. But, the greater returns were in giving women a "voice" in decisions about water and sanitation which is critical to their everyday work and life.

Water User Committees were established for collecting fees on an as-needed basis for maintenance and repairs. All female members were trained in operation and simple maintenance. Water Management Organizations for more complex systems, such as piped water systems requiring water pumping, were formally established with clear responsibilities and rights, a work plan, operation and maintenance protocol to support the waterworks.

Establishing water user committees and Water Management Organizations was important for ensuring sustainability. The gender action plan target of 30% for women's membership in these committees was easily achieved.


For women in the project areas, the greatest benefit was reducing the time spent fetching and storing water due to closer and better access to clean water for drinking, cooking, and washing. This freed them for other activities. Equally important was giving women a voice in decisions about water and sanitation and helping them on the path to making the transition from water users to community leaders.