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Lack of water and sanitation hurts women and girls the most

by Lisa Schechtman
Friday, 4 October 2013 12:05 GMT

Girls collect water in the Akpakpa neighbourhood of Benin's capital Cotonou, November 16, 2011. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It is time to stop talking and start accelerating efforts to ensure universal access to safe water, sanitation. Health, education, safety, dignity, and basic survival are on the line

Access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene is the key element of the life. Anyone who travels to countries without running water or goes on a backcountry camping trip becomes painfully aware of water’s importance.

It is the reason plumbers are so valued in wealthy countries. After all, who wants to live without a functioning toilet? Yet for 2.5 billion people, a toilet of any kind is but a dream. And for 768 million people, safe drinking water is out of reach.

Most of these people are women and girls.

Life without these services is a life of poor health, nutrition, education and employment. It is a life of walking long distances to collect water, which takes an estimated 26% of women’s time in rural Africa, 40 billion hours total each year; a life of missing school, work, and playtime because, in many cultures, bringing water home is the only priority for women and girls.

It is a life without a dignified toilet, a life that leads women and girls to spend 97 billion hours each year finding a place to go. It is a life in which fear of attack, and physical and sexual violence comingle with walking for water and seeking a private place to urinate or defecate. According to research conducted in Bhopal, India, 94% of women interviewed said they had faced violence or harassment when going out to defecate and more than one-third had been physically assaulted.

This is the life of women and girls in large part because they are more likely than men and boys to be poor and voiceless. Yet, women also have different needs when it comes to basic services. The reasons for this are both biological and cultural.

Women’s ability to reproduce makes the need for safe water, sanitation and hygiene especially important. When a woman is pregnant, access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene can be a matter of life and death. After all, the moments and days surrounding the birth of a child are fragile for both mom and baby; a lack of water for washing is a risk no one should face. 15% of all maternal deaths are caused by infections in the six weeks after childbirth, mainly due to unhygienic conditions and poor infection control during labor and delivery. 

Likewise, neonatal causes account for 44% of all deaths of children under five; these include infections like sepsis, preventable with good hygiene. Imagine the lives that could be saved.

Even if a woman never gets pregnant, they will menstruate. In many places, menstruation is grounds for stigma, discrimination, prohibitions from using shared resources like water taps, and missed school days.

Safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene services and education (WASH) can help women and girls remain active in their daily lives. For example, constructing secure, sex-segregated latrines at schools can give girls a place to manage their menstrual hygiene needs, keeping them clean, providing them dignity, and creating a measure of protection against discriminatory cultural norms, such as purity norms that posit that menstruating women will contaminate food or water pumps. Then, perhaps, they can just be students.

Community-based education about the importance of equal access to WASH can also help reduce discrimination and lack of access to basic services. For example, I recently had the opportunity to join local WaterAid staff in a village in Papua New Guinea, to speak families about WASH. It took some very gentle prodding, but the women in one extended family finally opened up about menstruation, acknowledging that they had never before spoken about it in front of their husbands—while their husbands looked on silently, even curiously, but did not intervene.

These women told me that they leave home when they have their periods, avoiding their community, and aren’t allowed to cook food for men, because of contamination from their impure state. Yet, they also acknowledged that they do not have tools to privately and cleanly manage their periods.

While we weren’t there to solve these problems in a single day, I realized that even this most basic of NGO outreach—asking a family to help us understand their lives—broke new ground on hygiene and menstruation. Imagine the changes if everyone had a clean toilet and everything they need to manage menstruation easily and privately.

These specific needs can seem daunting, making an already huge challenge feel intractable. The good news is that women and girls are really good at identifying solutions to their own challenges. We already have many tools that would change the lives of women and girls forever by providing the kinds of water and sanitation services they most need. What’s missing is political will to make safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene a reality for everyone—male and female--worldwide.

Recently, the United Nations General Assembly met to discuss progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and future aims for eradicating poverty everywhere. It is time to stop talking and start accelerating efforts to ensure universal access to safe water, sanitation. Health, education, safety, dignity, and basic survival are on the line. 

It’s time for us all to step up, for women and girls.

Lisa Schechtman is Head of Policy and Campaigns for WaterAid America