Somos Iguales: Water, Women, and Oneness
Compassion in the WASH Sector
A Conversation with Stephanie Ogden
Senior Water Policy Advisor, CARE
Julie: Stephanie, what a delight to speak with you today about your meaningful work in the WASH sector (water, sanitation, and hygiene)! I’m particularly interested in your passion about the impact of water on the lives of women in developing countries. Let’s begin with what inspired you to enter the field of WASH.
Stephanie: When I entered college I wanted to be a rural GP doctor. However, during my senior year I started questioning this and needed to explore my desire further. I signed up for the Peace Corps to be a rural health volunteer in Africa, but I was assigned to be a water and sanitation volunteer in Latin America. I served in a rural community in the northeast part of El Salvador near the Honduran border. The remnants of the Salvadoran civil war were still apparent. The peace accords had been signed in 1992, and I was a volunteer in 2002, so it was still relatively recent history.
I lived in a rural community called Las Tunas, which in Spanish means “The Dunes.” It was a very hilly community, rocky and poorly forested. It had no water. It had no latrines. It had no school. It had no roads. The community wanted all of these things, but mostly they wanted water. I was assigned to the village committee. We didn’t have the resources to build any large infrastructures, so I worked with the village committee on governance.
In the Peace Corps, during your first three months you are required to take a census of your community. I think the census taking was simply a strategy to get you to visit every household in your community. You were supposed to collect a whole census of health information, number of children, and the socio-economic status data. I abandoned the formal census taking very quickly but I did talk to every household, and I spent a lot of time with women in particular. I talked with them while they washed dishes, washed clothes, and made tortillas, the latter of which was a huge part of the day. Every activity required water. Each day we talked about water and how much easier life would be if they didn’t have to go down to the river to fetch water in the dry season, which was about two kilometers away at the bottom of the hills. Women walked down to do laundry or to collect water. They would then walk back up a very steep hill with a “cantaro,” a large urn that carried 20 litres of water, about 44 pounds of weight. For the entire two years of my Peace Corps service we talked about water.
When I finished my Peace Corps service I remained in El Salvador for a couple of years. I worked on other rural health issues but I always came back to water. I earned my master’s degree in environmental policy with a focus on water and water allocation. I’ve worked in this field ever since.
Julie: As I understand it, the WASH sector doesn’t consider itself part of global health, but rather as addressing human rights. How might the human rights values of WASH influence global health?
Stephanie: Water, sanitation, and hygiene as a package of interventions emerged in the 1990s when there was an increased emphasis on water and sanitation within the health sector, particularly for the control of diarrheal disease. Previously, engineers drilling wells, building reticulated systems of pipes and pumps, or constructing gravity-feed systems dominated water projects. These weren’t considered health projects per se, but rather water supply projects. The field was not oriented towards sanitation and did not take into account hygiene. Water’s nature and essential interconnectedness with other things was recognized There was a strong emphasis on irrigation systems in agriculture, which demonstrated the intrinsic overlap between water and agriculture, and some focus on watershed protection, which marked the importance of water in relationship to land use. And there was water supply for domestic use.
However, the WASH sector sees itself larger than a health issue. We (in the sector) believe water and sanitation is a fundamental human right. We recognize that health is not the only important outcome when families gain or improve access to water. This is especially true for women. Women are educated at a much higher rate if they don’t have to collect water. They spend time farming and working on tasks that generate income. They feel less vulnerable to attack or rape without having to walk long distances to water, or to defecate in hidden areas. WASH tries to articulate that our work reaches beyond health into education, human rights, safety and security, and privacy and dignity.
Julie: How does compassion inform and influence WASH’s emphasis on human rights and social justice?
Stephanie: Social justice is an imperative to compassion. If compassion is seeing ourselves as one with someone else, or as equal in value to others, then the imperative to that compassion is social justice – to make sure everyone has equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal access to WASH. In its most essential nature, water is the basis of everything, the foundation upon which everyone gets to build health and prosperity and education. Thus, the core of WASH’s work is essentially compassion, a movement towards social justice to give everyone equal foundation, and equal opportunity
Julie: You’ve spent a lot of time in remote areas. Where have you seen compassion alive in some of the areas you’ve been working?
Stephanie: Everywhere. I don’t think I’ve been to a place where I wouldn’t say compassion is prevalent or intrinsic to the community. Compassion for me is a sense of oneness, that we are equal, of value, and that we suffer, in the literal definition of compassion, or thrive together. Our fate is tied up with others around us. This is both a wonderful and a difficult thing. I see this everywhere.
My most formative years were in rural El Salvador. I discovered there that poverty does not diminish generosity. Maybe I was expecting it to. Maybe I was expecting that you go to the poorest of places and people protect what they have, but of course it’s the opposite. To some degree the poorest places are often the most generous. People would feed me all the time. No matter what house I visited during those years I would always get coffee, and most times women would make me food. I would sit and talk with them, and I was inevitably fed, just as any guest or neighbor was fed. I would think, “I’m not the one who needs food here.” The irony was that of all the people in the community, I was the one that needed the least, that least needed to be fed, and yet everyone fed me. That was how they knew to give.
There were also beautiful linguistic pieces. A lot of the older women in particular would respond to my “thank you,” with “somos uno”, or, “somos iguales”, which means, “we are one, we are the same.” The idea was that you don’t have to thank me, you shouldn’t thank me, I’m giving to you because you are the same as me, you are me, and I would expect that in return.
There’s another linguistic phrase that I was moved by. The most common way to respond to words of thanks in Las Tunas was “ya sabe.” This is a common idiom in Latin America. It literally means, “you already know,” or “as you know.” The way that I interpreted it is that “whatever you need you already know that I will give it to you. You already know that when you are in need we are here for each other.” I love that idea. And I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place where I didn’t trust that that was the case, where if I were in trouble in any way that I wouldn’t be taken care of, or that if I were in need that that wouldn’t be recognized. Yes, I find compassion and oneness everywhere.
Julie: It seems that in addition to the generosity, within all the scarcity there’s a mindset of abundance.
Stephanie: Yes. There is a beautiful Irish saying: “enough is already abundance.” I think farming communities know this best. There are seasons of abundance and seasons of scarcity. In El Salvador, as the corn ripened during corn season, there was a series of corn products to make. When the corn very young you make fresh corn tortillas that are sweet, called “riguas.” The corn is only just right for this purpose for a day or two. I remember, when the field was just right, families would make hundreds of them. You sit down with a family, and they give you a plate of a dozen. There’s no way that I could have physically eaten a dozen. But their response was that you have to eat it because we have abundance now, and who knows what tomorrow will look like. Today is a rich day, and let’s all take advantage of it.
Julie: What is it that sustains you in this work? What keeps you going?
Stephanie: There’s goodness everywhere, and to participate in that is a pleasure and a privilege. Wherever I go I’m grateful for that and that keeps me motivated and excited. It gets hard though. In my work now, I don’t often get to go to rural communities that I’m inspired by. I’m not always as close to the impact of our work that I wanted to be. I’m not sitting in rural homes, which is when I feel most fulfilled. If I could design an occupation for myself it would be to sit and have coffee with people in rural areas, and just listen. I would love to sit in households and ask women, “tell me how you live your life?”
Also, I have a stubborn desire to touch every part of the world. I am fascinated by even small differences. In Latin America, for example, tortillas are everywhere, but everybody makes them differently, and I find that observation interesting. I’m constantly surprised or in awe, and that’s a sustaining and a powerful force. I want to take inventory of the world…to see what’s different and what’s new, and catalog that away. At the end of my life I may look back and say that I saw every type of tortilla or bread that was ever made, as if it’s an accomplishment!
Julie: How do you cope when you are in the midst of suffering that goes beyond the needs that you are able to help with, or that WASH is able to help with?
Stephanie: Unlike medicine and administering an immediate remedy, WASH is a preventive long-term strategy. It’s not just healing the sick, but preventing them from getting sick in the first place. I have faith that people are resilient and innovative and ingenious and compassionate to each other. It’s not just me helping them, there’s the whole community that can help them. I must accept humbly my limitations. I must recognize where my attempts to solve systemic issues immediately will not be useful.
Julie: Was there anyone in particular who awakened a sense of compassion in you, particularly in your younger years?
Stephanie: I have been very lucky to have many examples. My mother and my maternal grandmother were particularly formative in my understanding of empathy and compassion. My mom is a wonderful nurse. She embodies empathy and humbly practices the belief that everyone should be happy and healthy. I think she lives in strong commitment to social justice on a daily basis, though she doesn’t necessarily preach it. My grandmother was similar. She was an immensely caring person who could cultivate anything. Her compassion spilled out into the household and into the yard around her. She loved plants and animals, and they loved her back. Plants bloomed for her, and the dogs and horses she had adored her.
Later, two religious women influenced my sense of compassion. I studied for a very short time with an order of Franciscan nuns. I am not a Catholic, but they accepted me and allowed me to be an apprentice nun for a few weeks. I studied under the guidance of one nun in particular who had taken the name Teresa, for Saint Teresa de Avila. Her understanding of the world was humbling. She was able to instantaneously take in the world with forgiveness. She drew strength and wisdom from Teresa de Avila and Mother Mary, both of whom she felt were models of compassion, models of accepting even while not understanding fully. Years later, I was living with an Uzbek Muslim woman and her family in Kyrgyzstan when my grandmother died. I was not able to come home for the funeral, and I remember her taking my hands, and telling me that my grandmother must be a wonderful woman since she died during Ramadan, which is the most blessed of all times.
Julie: Any words of wisdom for young people entering the field?
Stephanie: Be open to experience. Know that sometimes learning comes in a form that you wouldn’t expect. Listen and learn from everyone. Everybody has something to teach. Don’t worry about starting your career right now. You don’t need that right away. Go and practice being good at your life, maybe your whole life, and go find what you love. Being better at the other parts of your life will make you better at your work. I think that we are often taught the opposite – focus on a job to be fiscally responsible – but I would say being open and curious makes you better.
Stephanie Ogden is the Senior Water Policy Advisor for the Water Team at CARE. In this role, she works with country offices and key programs to identify and develop strategic approaches for addressing WASH policy gaps and for achieving systemic and lasting impact. Stephanie also engages in domestic advocacy for improved U.S. policies that enable sustainable water use and resource management. Stephanie has a master’s degree in International Environmental Policy and a graduate certificate in Water Conflict Management and Transformation.