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Voices / Column

Clean water improves the lives of women

Saxtons River

Her day begins before dawn. She walks four miles on uneven paths to reach a hand-dug pit from which she fetches the day’s water supply for her family. The water is polluted by flies, feces, and feeding animals.

In the dry season, the walk is treacherous as steep-sided mud walls collapse, injuring the women and girls who come, sometimes twice a day, for precious water. By the time she returns home carrying a water jug on her head that weighs as much as a baby giraffe, she is exhausted. Still, at night she must walk to the latrine, often in the dark, risking sexual assault.

This was daily life for many women, like Nakwetikya, a young Tanzanian, until a British-based organization, Water Aid, installed a well in her village.

“The situation was bleak,” she says. “There was no water, and we had to dig pits to find some. My legs shook with fear before climbing down those holes. But if I didn’t get water, my family couldn’t eat, wash, or have a drink.”

Lack of water and sanitation have an enormous impact on the lives of millions of women globally. In a single day, more than 200 million collective hours of women’s time is consumed by collecting water for domestic use. And of the 1.2 billion people worldwide who live without safe drinking water and basic hygiene facilities, half are women.

The availability of water affects women’s health in various ways. They suffer back injuries and pelvic deformities from carrying huge water supplies on their heads.

Often dehydrated, they are subject to malaria, diarrheal disease, and parasites. Yet almost one-tenth of the global disease burden, which women primarily bear as caregivers, is preventable with improved water supply, sanitation, hygiene, and management of water resources.

* * *

Such improvements require women to be at the decision-making table because they understand what is needed to make water safe and available. Projects designed and run with women’s full participation have proven to be more sustainable and effective.

“As the main users of future water points, women are best placed to choose the ideal location of a water source, and they have a great deal of crucial knowledge in the planning stages, such as where the nearest, cleanest sources of water are and when they dry out,” says Water Aid.

Women’s economic and social status is also affected by access to clean water.

Young girls who no longer must haul water can attend school, and with access to proper toilets, menstruating women can stay in school. Women who are not burdened by family illness can work in the marketplace or in agriculture, adding to family income.

Over time, these women assume greater responsibility in the community, as Nakwetikya testifies. “Since having this new water source,” she says, “life has changed. My status as a woman has been recognized [since serving on the water committee]. Before, men saw women as animals. They would not allow us to speak or listen to us. Now, I am someone with a valid opinion.”

* * *

Global challenges regarding water are serious and growing. The UN estimates that by 2025, 48 countries with a combined population of 2.8 billion people will face freshwater “stress” or “scarcity.” Currently, less than one percent of the world’s fresh water is readily accessible for direct human use.

Growing populations and unsustainable lifestyles are adding to worries about water shortages. Women remain most vulnerable because they often work in informal markets and don’t have resources to participate in competitive markets that contribute to water scarcity.

There are also concerns about privatization of water, which drives prices up and has an impact on distribution. As household managers, women are the first to realize the effects of water competition. That’s why it is important that women’s voices be heard at all levels of governance to ensure equity in a water-scarce world.

Climate change also brings challenges as droughts and floods become more frequent and extreme, reducing water access and quality. While industrialized countries are largely responsible for threatening this key resource, the world’s poorest people — women — bear the brunt of this threat while trying to provide for their families.

In its 2010 “Women, Water, Workers and Health” campaign, Public Services International (PSI), a global federation of public-sector trade unions, underscored access to clean, safe water as a means of reducing poverty, promoting gender equality, and ensuring universal health.

Engaging women in trade unions is one of their goals because “trade union members are often front-line experts with hands-on knowledge of how to improve management and delivery of quality water and health services,” they write.

Women’s health and environmental organizations have joined PSI in pointing out that water is a great equalizer: “We all need water to live.” The United Nations Millennium Development Goals speak specifically to the importance of addressing women, health, water, and sanitation simultaneously.

Women like Nakwetikya couldn’t agree more.

“When I heard we were going to get clean water I could only compare it to someone who is in prison for a long time,” she says. “When they are set free, it’s the most fantastic experience!”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #115 (Wednesday, August 24, 2011).

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