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Ms. Nomathemba Neseni, a respected human rights commissioner, WASH advocate and WSSCC Steering Committee Member, passed away 30 August 2012 in Harare, Zimbabwe, after a short illness. WSSCC’s Chair, Prof. Anna Tibaijuka, expressed the organization’s deep condolences to her family and to Mr. Lovemore Mujuru, Acting Executive Director of the Institute of Water and Sanitation Development (IWSD) in Zimbabwe, the institute she led.
“I know that today, everywhere around the world, the many friends and colleagues who held her dear are searching their thoughts, dealing with their grief and praying deeply for Noma and her family,” said Prof. Tibaijuka.
Ms. Neseni was an outstanding advocate for human rights and was passionate about sanitation and her work. At last year’s Global Forum on Sanitation and Hygiene in Mumbai, India, she received a thunderous applause from the participants who were on hand to witness her witty, provocative and inspiring opening plenary speech.
“Sanitation is a passion, not a job," she said. “I became a human rights commissioner because of toilets. What is gender equality or poverty alleviation when we are forced to defecate in the open?”
Ms. Neseni served for many years as a WSSCC National Coordinator for Zimbabwe, and more recently was elected by our Members to join the WSSCC Steering Committee. Under her coordination the WASH Coalition in Zimbabwe grew to be one of the most active of WSSCC’s coalitions, focusing on sanitation strategy development, school hygiene and health education, sanitation technology advice, and WASH Advocacy.
Ms. Neseni participated in a number of meetings on behalf of WSSCC throughout the world, including Geneva, Switzerland, where she regularly met other WASH Coalition National Coordinators at an annual planning meeting to share experiences and see how to make the coalitions more effective in their work on behalf of poor people.
Professionally, Ms. Neseni’s official role was as Executive Director of IWSD. The Institute is a leading regional centre for institutional capacity development in the water and sanitation sector. Its mission is to address issues of sustainable development in water resources, waste management, environmental integrity, poverty reduction and gender equity through capacity development.
In addition, in 2011 she was elected to the Human Rights Commission in Zimbabwe, a role that linked nicely for her with sanitation and hygiene work.
“Once we adopt the human rights based approach to programming we will do a lot more for the poor,” said Ms. Neseni last October in Mumbai. “The first step is to change our language: words like ‘sensitize,’ to me, means you are not sensitive. Phrases like ‘community diagnosis’ give the impression that we don’t understand and that the people themselves don’t know what’s wrong.” Ms. Neseni said that sanitation and hygiene professionals needed to start using words and phrases such as “rights-holders” and “duty-bearers.”
“If you are a rights-holder, good sanitation and hygiene is your right,” she added. “You might not be able to hold your government to account on, for example, monitoring that includes everyone, but you can hold your government to account on rights that they have a duty to bear to the people.”
“Noma is the type of person who, once you meet, you can never forget – and you never want to,” said Ms. Carolien van der Voorden, Senior Programme Officer for Networking and Knowledge Management at WSSCC, and a close collaborator with Ms. Neseni since 2003. “She served as a great inspiration to me personally as well as to everybody that knew her. We’ll continue to use that inspiration in doing the pro-poor sanitation and hygiene work in which she so passionately believed.”
As a recently elected open seat member of WSSCC’s Steering Committee, the organization’s member-elected governing body, Ms. Neseni participated in that board’s March 2012 meeting in Geneva. She was particularly excited about WSSCC’s increasing focus on equity, rights and inclusion issues. Under its governance guidelines, the WSSCC Chair will now advise on the timing for a special election to fill her seat. The Steering Committee meets again in October 2012.
“If everyone had her energy, passion and straight-talking approach, the world would be a much kinder place,” said Ms. Amanda Marlin, WSSCC Programme Manager for Advocacy and Communication and the current Officer-in-Charge. “We would not be talking so much about how the world needs human rights, safe sanitation, good hygiene or clean drinking water. We would have them all.”
Read IPS news correspondent Busani Bufani’s interview with Ms. Neseni, entitled “Why sanitation is the forgotten sister,” here.