How To Help Women In Sudan Learn Swimming Skills

by Claire Elizabeth Felter

Water is at the core of life for all humans, but along with its nutritional and medicinal qualities also come the dangers posed by having too much or too little of it. Having a comprehensive understanding on how to swim, then, is a must-have for any woman frequently interacting with water just to stay afloat in her daily life. But in a number of countries, women often find barriers to participating in swim activities and, consequently, schooling on aquatic survival. Here's everything you need to know on how to help organizations teaching water safety skills to the world's women, because the women who lack the proper knowledge can be at serious risk.

The World Health Organization estimates 372,000 people die each year due to drowning, and this total doesn't even include deaths caused by transportation-related accidents or natural disasters like floods. But retrieving accurate data on drownings in low- and middle-income countries, where the overwhelming majority of these deaths occur, is difficult simply due to the large number of accidents that go unreported. Many experts working on the ground, like Dan Graham, believe the actual total to be somewhere in the order of a couple million of people a year.

"I think drowning is one of these hidden issues," Graham, a co-founder of U.K.-based NGO Nile Swimmers, tells Bustle. "When someone gets malaria, they'll go to a doctor and a record is created. When someone drowns in a river, if their body is recovered they might be counted. Otherwise, they are washed downstream and they disappear. There's a huge death rate that's really difficult to get a handle on."

The goal of Nile Swimmers — which works primarily around Sudan's capital Khartoum — is to decrease drowning instances in the East African country by training people to keep their own communities safe around water. The NGO grew out of the Sudan British Council's interest in bringing international instructors into the area, where the Blue and White Nile rivers meet, to build the capacity of the national Sudanese Sea Scouts.

Since the birth of Nile Swimmers in 2007, it has also established official partnerships with three different government ministries, trained 150 volunteers to teach water safety awareness classes in local schools, and developed a training course for the Civil Defense ministry's river police. The NGO is about to take on a UNICEF-funded education program at a refugee camp on the Sudan and South Sudan border.

But the introduction of women into water safety trainings has not been a fast process — for Nile Swimmers or for other drowning prevention organizations around the globe. This is due, at least in part, to religious and culture traditions that steer women away from recreational water activities. Even in the U.S., modesty requirements pushed Muslim American women in San Diego, California, to request female-only swim hours at a local YMCA.

You can also find a smaller focus on females in the research on global drowning rates, which often cites young males as a higher-risk group. A 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated drowning deaths among men were occurring three times the rate of women in America. These male-heavy statistics should by no means be disregarded, but there should be equal attention paid to ensure women are involved in the educational process.

On the suggestion that men are more at risk, Graham says he is "unsold" on the gender distinction. The co-founder's skepticism comes, in part, from witnessing dozens of females wading and playing in water, despite hearing time and again that Sudanese culture discourages women from swimming. According to Graham, women are likely interacting with water in the same ways as men do, and they're oftentimes doing it without as much prior knowledge or experience.

"Women have to drink water and wash themselves just like everyone else," says Graham. "So the male and female exposure rate wouldn't be massively different in those cultures."

While men generally engage in more risk-taking behavior around the globe and water accidents involving male youth occur regularly, women in Sudan spend plenty of time near water — whether it be to collect drinking water or wash laundry. Wearing draped fabrics to adhere to Muslim cultural principles and fully cover their bodies makes moving around in the water challenging and potentially dangerous. Understanding this difficulty for Muslim females, the U.K.-based Royal National Lifeboat Institution and a Zanzibar NGO called The Panje Project designed full-body swim costumes, complete with skirts and hoods, to encourage girls to participate in their training program on the East African island.

Despite apprehension within communities where Nile Swimmers works, Graham's team has made headway in bringing females into the classroom. The organization recently piloted a training program exclusively for female pool lifeguards, an opportunity that Graham says was never available for women in Khartoum previously. According to Graham, it was enthusiastic interest among a small group of female water sports athletes that helped initiate the planning for the female lifeguarding course.

"The women that are there kayaking, or rowing or swimming are really, really strong feminist activists. They're standing up against the will of their fathers or their husbands and going, 'I want to go and do this,'" says Graham.

But ensuring that these opportunities (and fabulous bathing suits) are available to women and girls requires both financial and verbal support. The Nile Swimmers team suggests donation amounts to pay for particular costs: just under $9 will cover a child's program fees, while $42 will cover lunches for a group of 20 training participants. Or you could host a fundraising event, and team up with your own community pool to get the word out on the issue to others in your town. Graham says that increasing awareness on a global level is one of Nile Swimmers' biggest challenges, so doing your own campaigning on social media and spreading the love for what organizations like Nile Swimmers or the Royal National Lifeboat Institute do is another great option.

These small steps can still produce a great impact. All it takes to prevent a drowning incident is teaching the right set of survival and rescue technique. Graham has seen that firsthand in Khartoum. Of the just 30 or 40 lifeguards he has trained in Sudan through Nile Swimmers, two have already come back and told him, "'I saved this guy's life and I knew how to do it because of this training.'" And with two more female lifeguard courses scheduled to run in the coming months, Graham will soon be hearing Sudanese women's own rescue stories.

"A survivor's story is really powerful, no matter what community you're in," Graham tells Bustle. "There's going to be more and more as we grow."