H2O Maghreb Empowers Moroccan Women to Play New Roles in Sustainable Water Management
When Saadia started working as an engineer for a public water utility in Morocco, she was always “the only woman at the table,” she recalls.
Today, as a trainer at the International Institute of Water and Wastewater (IEA) in Rabat, she helps prepare young people — including many young women — to join her in a sector that has traditionally been dominated by men.
In line with USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s call for more inclusive development, H2O Maghreb and other USAID activities have helped partners in many countries break the bias against women and girls in the water and sanitation sector.
H2O Maghreb, for which Saadia served as a trainer, was at the forefront of efforts to boost women’s employment in water and sanitation in Morocco during the project’s four-year duration. More than three-quarters of the 112 young people who enrolled in the project’s training course in sustainable water management from November 2018 to February 2022 — and 78 percent of its 91 graduates — were women.
The status quo
A World Bank study that collected data from 64 water and sanitation service providers in 28 countries found that, on average, only 18 percent of the utilities’ workers were women. In Morocco, a study commissioned by H2O Maghreb in 2021 revealed that the number of women entering the sector is increasing, but only a quarter of the employees in the government’s three main water and sanitation agencies were women.
Moroccan women’s representation in technical jobs was even lower. For example, at the country’s largest water utility, the Office National de L’électricité et de L’eau Potable (ONEE), about 17 percent of employees and less than one percent of technical enforcement agents were women.
Salma Kadiri, Project Management Specialist with USAID/Morocco, explains that employers usually avoid hiring women for technical jobs because of traditional expectations about women’s place in society. “For security reasons and because of social norms here in Morocco, they prefer not to give women jobs when they have to travel and go to the clients,” she says.
The best candidates
Conducted at ONEE’s IEA training hub, H2O Maghreb’s six-month courses offered trainees a mix of theoretical learning and hands-on experience, including practice responding to emergencies through a virtual water treatment plant created for the project by its private sector partners, EON Reality and Fesco Didactic. USAID and its implementing partner the United Nations Industrial Development Organization also partnered with ONEE and several Moroccan government ministries under this project.
This public-private partnership designed the training course to help meet a critical need for state-of-the-art capacity in sustainable water management at a time when Morocco’s limited freshwater resources are under pressure from population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and climate change. Morocco is also facing the worst drought in decades, meaning sustainable water management is more important than ever.
USAID also saw the project as an opportunity to expand the inclusion of women, and H2O Maghreb actively recruited female trainees. The 2021 study found that providing safe accommodations and meals at the IEA made it possible for young people from all regions of the country to participate in the training, and they may have been the deciding factor for young women considering participation.
Ultimately, however, the predominance of young women among the trainees reflected their performance on the entrance exams, notes Kadiri. “There were some actions that encouraged female participation,” she says, “But also the transparency and open competition of the hiring process for H2O Maghreb helped to select the best candidates, which happened to be women.”
Mentors and role models
The experiences of the first group of women trainees aided subsequent recruitment efforts, as these graduates returned to speak to other trainee classes and spread the word among their peers that H2O Maghreb is an environment where women can thrive. To create that environment, the project recruited women to serve as trainers, raised awareness of gender issues during the training of both trainers and trainees, used gender-neutral language, and featured women in training videos and printed materials.
Kadiri emphasizes the importance of mentoring, particularly by the two women trainers, who are “very encouraging and supportive of young female students.”
Women who had achieved success in water management positions, including engineers, technicians, trainers, and managers, also served as role models by participating in workshops to share their experiences with the trainees. Those discussions, Kadiri says, were “really eye-opening for the young students and helped them to project themselves in the water sector.”
For Saadia, the training was an opportunity to share her own experiences as an engineer and her love of the field with young people, especially young women. “Our training programs go beyond just teaching the right techniques,” she says. “We motivate our students to be passionate about what they do.”
A new generation
The H20 Maghreb project ended in February 2022, but the approach it pioneered continues. The project collaborated with Mohammed VI Polytechnic University to adapt the curriculum for a new degree program in sustainable water management. The Ministry of Education has accredited the H2O Maghreb curriculum, and Morocco’s Office of Professional Training and Work Promotion plans to offer vocational training based on the curriculum in the Beni Mellal region.
Seventy-five percent of the 91 students who completed the H2O Maghreb training found employment within six months of graduation (before the COVID-19 pandemic, when hiring slowed). Overall, about 68 percent were employed at project completion.
The placement rate of women trainees was even higher (79 percent pre-COVID), particularly in the public sector, where female recruits excelled in the merit-based hiring system — including a written test. “Women have more chances to succeed in these tests, rather than in the private sector, where it goes through interviews and interpersonal relations and networking, where women are less privileged or less well placed than men,” Kadiri says.
Saadia is proud that many of the women who graduated from H20 Maghreb are now her colleagues. “When I joined ONEE, a female water technician network didn’t exist; it was a job for men,” she says. “It’s a real revolution.”
By Kathleen Shears, Science Writer, FHI 360. FHI 360 is a partner on the Global Waters Communication and Knowledge Management Activity supported by USAID’s RFS Center for Water Security, Sanitation, and Hygiene.
This story is the second of a series highlighting USAID’s work to promote gender equity and women’s empowerment. Read the first blog on Menstrual Hygiene Management.