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Water women of the world Part 2

Across the world, women are defying stereotypes; working in the water, teaching children to swim, lifeguarding beaches, and saving lives. Here we meet three of the these dynamic water women.

Mariam Marx Tanzania Sea Rescue

Photo: Claus Dettelbacher                

The Rescuer: Mariam Marx

Tanzania Sea Rescue

I’m a PE teacher. At the moment I’m back home in Dar Es Salaam - Tanzania. I’m 43. I can swim well, but I won’t say I’m that great at it. I actually learned swimming in my 20s, when I lived in the Philippines.

I think it’s still unusual to know how to swim here, because not a lot of people have access to swimming pools, or live by sea.

Also, it’s a cultural thing that not a lot of children - girls especially - are exposed to an environment where they can freely swim. In Tanzania for example, I see a lot of boys swimming and having a great time. However, not a single girl can be spotted swimming.

I love the ocean. I’m not scared of it at all. The sea is very important to life here, as a lot of people on the coasts rely on fishing for their livelihoods. It’s also important to educate the community about the importance of looking after and caring for our oceans.

I’ve only done one training session with Tanzania Sea Rescue so far. I’m looking forward to many more.

It is very important for local children to learn to swim, as it gives them the necessary life skills, so they can help themselves and people around them. I believe free swimming lessons can be given by volunteers.

Women can and should be swimmers and rescuers, and become role models for young girls. I think a lot of girls or women do not take the chance to try it out, because there aren't a lot of women in this field - therefore it is perceived as a man thing to save lives.

But I say: ‘Whatever a man can do, so can a woman!’

The Swimming Teacher: Joynab Jahan Jeny

SwimSafe, Bangladesh

I’m Jeny, I’m 19 years old, and I’m one of only two female swimming teachers here in Cox’s Bazar. I’m also training to be a lifeguard.

I love what I do and I’m very proud of my career. I learned to swim at a very young age, because there are many ponds in my village, and I used to swim and play in them with my friends. Now I’m so pleased I can use my skills to help others. Sometimes I swim before work to keep fit. I also walk for 1 hour every day.

I teach both boys and girls to swim - but especially girls, because they feel more comfortable having swimming lessons from a woman. Without a female swimming teacher, no girls here would come for lessons. When I look at my class of children in the water, I feel so proud. It’s a great achievement that the group has so many girls. Even better, they are strong and able. Children get into trouble in the water such a lot in Cox's Bazar, it shouldn't be that boys but not girls can survive and learn to save others.

I trained to be a swimming teacher in 2015 with CIPRB (Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh). At the time I worked for another NGO. As I was a good swimmer, the training was easy. Once I was trained, I gave swimming lessons to different people in the community. When I heard about the RNLI’s SwimSafe programme, I wanted to join. Again, I got the training from SeaSafe and CIPRB and performed well. Then I got the job offer and was really excited.

My family feels very proud of me, because by becoming a swimming teacher and learning to be a lifeguard, I can save lives. I feel very comfortable working here as a woman. The two male swimming teachers are very friendly and polite.

Sometimes I’m criticised by others outside the family. They say I should do a different job where I’m not meeting so many people, because I’m not married. It’s not the done thing for a Bangladeshi woman to do sports or be on the beach before her marriage. But I don’t care. I know what I’m doing right now and what I want to do in future. I want to be confident and self-sufficient, and help my society progress.

The Swimming Teacher: Siti Haji Simai

Panje Project, Zanzibar

My favorite part of my work is when I see the children in my class start to swim without my help. That’s when I know I’ve done a good job!

In small ways, I believe we are making real change here. Until now, the water that surrounds us has been a source of life and death. Simple swim skills can make all the difference. We need local women to be leaders and an inspiration. Through this job, teaching children to swim and training to save lives, I'm trying to be the female role model I didn't have when I was growing up.

Growing up by the sea in Zanzibar I used to play in the water with my brother, but there was never an opportunity to learn how to swim. Girls in Zanzibar are always told there are better things they should be doing with their time. We’re told that swimming is for boys, not girls.

Nungwi is a fishing village on Unguja Island in Zanzibar. Water is our life. Every day, people travel from here to reach local islands using dhows.

Some of my family live on Tumbatu and Pemba islands, and I use dhows to visit them, especially to celebrate religious festivals. The dhows are always badly overcrowded. Every time I’ve made the journey I’ve felt scared – I knew I wouldn’t survive if the dhow started to sink. Without lifejackets, and full of passengers who cannot swim, boats that capsize – as I have known them to do near Tumbatu – cause people to drown. Too many people drown.

But last year I decided to learn how to swim. After 24 years I’d had enough. It isn’t fair that boys are taught to be safe, and not girls. Why should we drown while boys survive?

So I attended a swimming course by a local NGO called the Panje Project, supported by the RNLI. I had one aim: to learn to swim so I could save myself and rescue other villagers in difficulty in the water. Too many times I have seen this happen; I don’t want to stand by any longer.

All the swimming teachers in Nungwi are male, but that didn’t stop me – I went with some female friends and asked them to teach us. They agreed. Of course, some people in the village said bad things about us, but I didn’t care, I just ignored them. The more people said bad things, the more I wanted to learn.

It took me 15 lessons to be able to swim. We learned how to float, swim, and rescue others using sticks, jerry containers and floats. The swimming lessons take place in the ocean, and to begin with it was so difficult. But since December I have been practising every week and now I can swim more than 200 metres.

I feel powerful and free. I want other girls to feel that way. Now I can swim I want to share these skills with girls across my village, my island, so that they can be safe too. I know that they will only be taught if I teach them. So now, I’m learning how to be a swimming teacher. It’s not just for men.

It’s a difficult programme but I am learning a lot, and I know I can do it. Once I’ve passed the course I’m going to train all my friends and family. Everyone in Zanzibar deserves the opportunity to be safe in the water; every boy and every girl.

Interviews conducted by Jane Labous, Philly Byrde and Tom Mecrow

SwimSafe Bangladesh and Panje Project projects are financially supported by the Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation.

You can read part 1 of our 'Water women of the world' feature here.

Find out more about how the RNLI is working with partners to prevent drowning around the world here.