How will we turn on the tap for women and girls?
Women and girls have a huge role in providing water for their families. In many countries, females are the ones who bear the responsibility of collecting and supplying water, and ensuring hygiene practices are followed in the home. But, these water, sanitation and hygiene (termed WASH) related responsibilities prevent women and girls from getting the opportunity to hold employment or gain an education. After walking for hours in some cases, the water they fetch can be contaminated or might be expensive if they are purchasing it from a seller. Where there is no toilet or latrine, people practice open defecation out in the fields and forests around the houses. Many women will wait until after dark to have some privacy, but put themselves at risk for harassment or sexual assault. Girls of school age are more likely to drop out of school once they reach puberty because they lack adequate sanitation facilities.
Just how big of an issue is this, in numbers?
This issue is big; there is no question! The Joint Monitoring Programme from the World Health Organization and UNICEF reports that women and children around the globe spend 200 million hours a day collecting water. In South Africa alone, women walk the equivalent of 16 times to the moon and back every day just to fetch water! When we put it in numbers like this, we see that this is serious business!
Women and girls who don’t have access to toilets spend 97 billion hours each year searching for a place to relieve themselves. It’s almost unbelievable when we realize that one in three women don’t have access to a toilet.
By spending the majority of their lives carrying heavy water containers and walking far distances, women experience permanent health damage including anemia, chronic fatigue, and spinal deformities.
Unfortunately, women spend countless hours doing unpaid work, including caring for children who fall ill due to water quality issues. In addition, women are underrepresented in water and sanitation jobs, with decision making positions in this sector belonging to men, reported by UN Water.
When girls are forced to drop out of school once they start menstruating due to lack of proper sanitation options, they miss out on invaluable years of school. This creates a cycle of poverty that is hard to break.
So to put it plainly, proper access to water and sanitation is a matter of life and death. The fact that diarrheal diseases related to contaminated drinking water is the second leading cause of death in children highlights this truth. The situation is of course even worse in conflict zones.
How far we’ve come – Progress on the MDGs
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a set of goals agreed upon by the international community and adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 2000. World leaders set a deadline for the year 2015 to achieve the MDGs. Overall, the central purpose of these goals was to address extreme poverty. In particular, there were two goals, goal 3 and goal 7, related to gender and water issues. Each goal was measurable with a target and corresponding set of indicators that help measure the progress.
Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
For goal 3, a target was to “eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015”. Indicators for this goal included literacy rate, ratio of boys to girls in schools, and the number of seats won by women in national governments.
Goal 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability
One of Goal 7’s targets was to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”. Indicators included proportion of population with sustainable access to an improved water source and proportion of population with access to improved sanitation”.
According to the MDG Report, significant progress has been made on goal 3. As of 2015, 90% of 174 countries had more women in parliament than in 1995. While access to education was more varied, nearly two-thirds of developing countries attained gender equality in education at least at the primary level. Crucial gaps still exist between men and women in the labour market.
For goal 7, the MDG Report reveals that by 2015, 1.9 billion more people had access to piped drinking water than in 1990. The report emphasizes that “147 countries have met the drinking water target, 95 countries have met the sanitation target and 77 countries have met both”.
What you might see, however, is that gender was not explicitly linked to the water and sanitation goals, and water and sanitation was not explicitly linked to the gender goals.
Room for Improvement – the SDGs
As 2015 approached, world leaders and the UN recognized the need to continue the work of the MDGs. The UN set 17 development goals to end global poverty and hunger by 2030. These 17 goals are known as the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. Goal 6 is to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” One of the targets for goal 6 specifically mentions gender:
“By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations”.
Finally, the global framework for reducing poverty has acknowledged the overlap between the WASH sector and gender. Yet, the reality for millions of women and girls leaves them no option but to spend hours each day collecting water or taking risks where access to sanitation is lacking. So what can be done?
We each play a part
With all these statistics about the barriers faced by women and girls because of water and sanitation issues, the situation can feel overwhelming, but we do have many ways to create change. We require a multifaceted effort from the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors, and as well from individuals.
Governments, particularly in countries where the MDG targets for water in sanitation were not met, have a responsibility to implement adequate sanitation policies. Governments must endorse and provide resources to meet the SDGs. International stakeholders such as the UN must develop and implement global strategies to combatting this issue. Since women are the managers of water at the household level, women should be included in all levels of the planning process of WASH programs. Incorporating different gender perspectives into water projects makes these projects more effective and sustainable. However, the public sector alone cannot resolve this crisis and must work in partnership with other groups.
Actors in the private sector should recognize opportunities to invest in social development and water conscious products or business strategies. Many businesses such as H & M, WestJet, PepsiCo and others have followed a trend of conserving water or other socially responsible practices that simultaenously benefit the world and attract customers. Innovative businesses looking to meet the sanitation needs of the poor already exist in Senegal, and elsewhere governments are seeking to responsibly involve private companies in sanitation. These private businesses must ensure their services are meeting the needs of the most vulnerable: women and children, and not taking advantage of the population they serve.
Whether it’s a large not-for-profit organization like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or a smaller organization like us, the non-profit sector plays a critical role in providing access to water and sanitation for women and girls. Where governments and the private sector have not invested in the WASH sector, it is typically the non-profit sector that fills or bridges these gaps.
Living a heart-based lifestyle is where it all starts. As individuals and consumers, we can choose to support water- and socially-conscious companies including the ones mentioned above. When you make those everyday choices that align with your passion to foster a sustainable world, the world benefits because a ripple effect of progressive action is put into motion. What also doesn’t hurt is to stay well informed about the water and sanitation issues at hand for women and girls. As individuals, you can engage in advocacy, lending time and effort to a relevant initiative. It’s the individuals who support charitable causes that make work like what we do at WWP possible.
The amount of evidence demonstrating that women and girls are disproportionately affected by water and sanitation issues is huge. However, the issues are not inevitable. Change is possible and requires a global action plan which will be solidified in the SDGs. Together we can and must turn on the tap for women and girls.
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