The village network of Peny Peny is not a hard hat zone. Nevertheless, construction there is constant. Situated within the arid highlands of Kapoeta North County in the Eastern Equatoria state of South Sudan, it is home to the Toposa people, a semi-nomadic tribal community consisting of around 2,500 members. The ever-expanding population requires thousands of structures – ranging from walls to sleeping huts, enclosures, kitchens, granaries, and latrines. Without access to power, running water, or advanced machinery, these structures must be made by hand – primarily, the hands of women and girls.
There is a prevailing notion in both industrialized and developing societies that construction and infrastructure work is a male occupation, and in Africa women account for just 5.5 percent of construction workers. But surprisingly, it is in the tribal communities of South Sudan that this narrative starkly changes. There, while men do undertake paid construction labor, the majority of construction is unpaid and falls to women.
As USAID/South Sudan’s Afia Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) Project progresses, its efforts to expand and maintain WASH infrastructure in these rural communities increasingly relies on female tribe members. Under its Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) initiative, the project works to end open defecation practices by installing latrines made of locally sourced materials. Since the activity’s inception in October 2021, communities in Kapoeta North County have constructed 159 latrines as a result of its CLTS initiatives.
In Kudule, a neighboring village to Peny Peny, women lead this effort after receiving instructional trainings from the Afia WASH team. Not only do they spearhead the associated construction work, but they are the most vocal in advocating for the change in practice and for recognizing its impact. “We understand that flies, winds, and rains carry disease from our waste but ever since we constructed the latrines, the bouts of diarrhea and cholera have greatly diminished,” said Regina Napeta, a village elder who used the CLTS training to install her own latrine.
To supplement their new latrines, women also erect hand washing stations nearby to ensure further sanitation. When soap is not available, they gather ash to be used as a substitute disinfectant. In some cases, men will help with digging the latrine pits but primarily, it falls on women to sustain the community’s WASH infrastructure. While Afia WASH prioritizes female leadership throughout its interventions, there is a growing need for men to relieve women of this lopsided workload.
Among the Toposa and throughout rural South Sudan, the duties of women extend far beyond construction work. Women oversee fetching water, cooking meals, childcare, laundry, carrying goods to market, household finances, and more. Men primarily manage the livestock and village security. Simply put, this imbalanced division of labor has tired women out.
“Most women here are struggling – especially as it applies to thirst and hunger. Our duties demand much of us, more than is expected of men,” said Lucia Marie, a Loregae villager and member of Social Analysis and Action team – an Afia WASH initiative centered on shifting communal thinking through open and safe discourse. Through an exercise called “pile sorting,” community members divide physical markers indicating household duties into piles for men and women. The result is a visual representation of the gender disparity when the women’s pile far outsizes that of the men.
While men are beginning to recognize a need to do more, the cultural norms stratifying the genders are built on generations of practice. Even for men, there are costly social consequences for breaking them. Husbands who help their wives to prepare meals, fetch water, or lead construction efforts face ostracization from their peers. Historically, such men have had derogatory songs made of them with the intent of encouraging self-imposed exile from the community.
Such social pressures make it difficult for women to oppose these norms as well. When alone, they speak more freely on the subject but in the presence of a mixed gender audience, they sometimes reinforce the norm. Lamare Lino provided a good example when asked, with her husband nearby, how men can do more for their community. She responded by saying, “Men are solely responsible for our livestock. It is not their duty to take on the work of women.”
During a sweltering dry season afternoon, women and men of the Napustirae’s Social Analysis and Action team convened to discuss social issues affecting the community. When the topic turned to gender, Lucia, with her baby swaddled to her chest, found her voice as she addressed the men of her community. “We (women) move, carry, and exert ourselves more just to fulfill our regular duties. We can’t keep going on like this.” She proceeded to address the taboos of menstruation, child marriages, and the lack of girls’ education. Despite their beleaguered expressions, the men listened. “She’s right,” said elder, Joseph Lomoi Tioko. “We must support what Lucia says by sending more girls to school.”
When it comes to WASH infrastructure, women lead by necessity, not by choice. Although Afia WASH strives to promote women in its work, the project recognizes the need for them to do less and decide more, to be leaders, and not solely laborers. Through facilitating deliberate and habitual community conversations, Afia WASH encourages women like Lucia, and more recently men too, to initiate change from within.
The shift is already being felt as more men embrace the call for more equitable involvement. Following the enaction of regular Social Analysis and Action team meetings in his community, Marino, a Toposa tribesman, decided to help his wife construct their home together. “Long ago Toposa men did not know how to construct homes, but things are changing as their perceptions and cultural beliefs are being shaken and Marino is one such example,” said Social Analysis and Action team elder and gender champion, Andrea Lopeto.
Afia WASH is not only building boreholes and water yards, it is building a dialogue with gender at its center. Women have long carried buckets of water for miles. As longstanding norms begin to dissipate, the project hopes to see them carry their communities’ futures instead.