One of Malawi’s first female engineering graduates, Mercy Masoo, now WaterAid Malawi’s country director, chose an unusual career path for women in Malawi at the time. She entered the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) field at a time when few women in her country had leadership roles, and she was often the only woman at the decision-making table.
She’s watched—and helped—that slowly change.
She spoke to GHN’s Dayna Kerecman Myers on the sidelines of Women Deliver 2019 in Vancouver on June 6 and described her path, what helped her grow as a leader, and why water is such a critical issue when it comes to women and gender equality.
Why is water a women’s issue, and why is it such an important issue for women in Malawi and beyond?
I think water sanitation and hygiene is a women and girl’s issue, whether we like it or not. It’s either that they’re always busy collecting water or there is not enough water to carry on their lives. We’re talking about this issue now, but there is a lot more that needs to be done as far as ensuring that women’s dignity and health is actually supported through decent sanitation and hygiene.
You traveled a long way from Malawi to Vancouver for Women Deliver 2019; what messages did you want to bring to that forum?
For me, coming from an organization in the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene field that specifically targets spaces where women and girls live, I see how their situation needs to change. For WaterAid, we saw Women Deliver as an opportunity to connect with different organizations, institutions and platforms to make our work to transform the lives of women and girls through WASH access more impactful.
What inspired you to tackle water and sanitation for your career, and how did you become a leader in your field?
My journey started in 1992, when I joined Save the Children as an intern to work on water issues. At the time, I was a first-year student at the University of Malawi, studying engineering. There were a lot of refugees at the time; Malawi was hosting over a million refugees from Mozambique, so there were a lot of water and sanitation interventions in the refugee camps. We were also hit by drought between 1991 and 1992, so I joined Save the Children during the peak of some big water supply interventions.
What inspired you to choose engineering for your career; are there a lot of women and girls in Malawi who pursue that degree?
I just felt this pull to go into this unfamiliar career. When I began my first year at university, I met the first group of female engineers graduating from my school.
Our group was the biggest group of female engineering students by that point; about 6 of us (out of 80 total). Some of the girls just managed to get to the diploma level; by the end, just 3 were left standing—one doing electrical engineering, and then two of us in civil engineering. I graduated in 1997.
With time, we’ve seen a lot more girls studying engineering in Malawi, and I’m sure they’ve also been inspired from the growing number of female engineers working in Malawi. Some are now lecturers at the university as well; when I was a student the lecturers were all male.
How did you develop your leadership skills?
I also attribute my exposure to Kate Wedgewood, head Save the Children’s water program in Malawi back then. In addition to giving me the work and the opportunity, she mentored me. I remember she’d take me to meetings with senior people in the water sector, and she would say come and sit with me. I would go and sit right next to her, and wouldn’t say a thing, just sit and observe—but I was learning so much on the job.
That helped me learn more about the WASH industry—and I also learned a lot about how to carry yourself as a woman in a male-dominated environment. You just need to step out—don’t allow yourself to be in the background. She (Wedgewood) was in charge, and I had to learn by being invited into those spaces. I’m sure there were others thinking, “What is this girl doing here?” But she knew exactly what she was doing in terms of empowering me and giving me exposure.
Along the way, I’ve also met other women who have seen my potential and helped me. And with time, I’ve learned that if you are growing, there are others behind you who need help, and so I’ve been mentoring other people.
What did you learn as one of the first female leaders in Malawi’s WASH sector?
When I joined WaterAid, in 2012, I found I was the only woman on the senior management team—joining as a country director, and taking over from a male director. I had to draw on those skills I’d built over time to survive in such a male-dominated environment. Now, it’s the other way around—now we have 1 man and 5 women on the senior management team.
When you look at WaterAid, people think it’s an engineering organization. But I think a lot has shifted. I’m finding that I use my social and leadership skills more than my engineering skills to run the organization.
After Save the Children, I worked for CARE on project management for social protection and safety net programs, helping vulnerable women develop small business. That was a turning point for me in looking women’s issues: I walked into the project as an engineer, thinking that’s what the job was about—but seeing social and economic transformation in these women made me to start thinking I’m not just an engineer, I’m a woman, and I want to address these issues.
What are some examples of WaterAid’s WASH interventions in schools?
In Southern Africa, WaterAid is in 6 countries: Malawi, Madagascar, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zambia, and we also have a new program focusing on schools in South Africa. And then our regional office is in Pretoria.
We’re ensuring schools have a water supply; we connect water to the schools, add water stands (taps) and ensure a sufficient supply with tanks. We’ve worked with rural and urban schools, but most of our work now actually targets urban areas. We’re also looking at where school latrines need to be improved. In some places, a school with 1,000 children might have just 2 toilets for boys and 2 for girls. Then they might have a 20-minute break to use the latrines—and many kids end up just going into the bush to go instead.
Does that make it hard for girls on their period to go to school?
When girls have their periods, they just stay at home, because Malawi’s schools do not provide the facilities to manage menstruation.
People have opened up, though; we’re trying to make it okay to talk about it—even between boys and girls. We have a subject called Life Skills, and boys and girls learn together. That includes making sure the boys understand it’s normal for girls to get their periods; it’s part of growing up. They see it’s normal, and for the girls, knowing the boys are learning about this, it puts them at ease.
What do you want people to know about Malawi’s WASH goals?
For Malawi, when you talk about achieving WASH access for everyone, everywhere, we’re beginning to see that if we continue with business as usual we’re not going to achieve our mission. We need to get to those places where people are left behind.
Not just in homes, but also where women and girls spend a lot of time, like schools. Health care facilities are also at the heart of our efforts. (A Women Deliver session on WASH highlighted the problem of women giving birth in health facilities without latrines.) By 2023, WaterAid aims to reach at least 150 health facilities throughout Malawi to meet the WHO WASH standard. So for me, that’s the push we’re on.
How close are you?
Out of the 150, looking at the mandate of the organization, we committed ourselves to do 75 so we can influence the others to the other 75. We’ve now built 20 since we started this initiative back in 2016. We have money for another 4. So now I think it’s doable; we’ve reached a level where we can do 10 a year. Our only restraint is resources.
Ed. Note: This is the first installment in a new GHN series on Leadership and Gender Equality, inspired by chats on the sidelines of Women Deliver 2019 in Vancouver. Look for the next installment soon!
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