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Women’s water and sanitation crisis

POSTED March 27, 2014 7:22 p.m.

Water might be on the forefront of everyone’s minds in California as we face continued drought conditions, but in India there’s a mother losing her daughter every single day due to the lack of clean, drinkable water.

As pointed out in my last column that focused on the gender wage gap in America, there are still many inequalities facing women today, whether in the United States or across the globe. Being that March is Women’s History Month, it’s important that we not only examine the injustices that many American women continually struggle with, but the many international atrocities that are putting the lives of women in danger each day.

According to the United Nations Interagency Task Force on Gender and Water, various research and studies conducted throughout the world have shown time and again that access to clean water has an impact on gender inequality. Women’s participation in water and sanitation projects not only results in increased sustainability and effectiveness, but in giving women and girls more time for productive endeavors, education, and empowerment activities while also decreasing sexual assault. Why? In many poor countries without clean and easily accessible water sources, girls often begin collecting unsafe water at a young age and continue to collect and carry water throughout their lives, as it is primarily held as the duty of women within the community or village.

The Water Aid Organization of the United Kingdom found that many girls will spend more than 6 hours per day collecting water for their families, hindering them from attending school and pursuing an education. Even the small handful of young girls who attend school end up dropping out when they begin menstruating, due to not having anywhere to keep clean. Additionally, without having a safe or private place to go to the bathroom while carrying water all day, many young girls and women will go only at night, when the risk of assault, sexual harassment or animal attacks is greatly increased. For many women and young girls in developing countries across the globe, this is their daily reality.

Additionally, UN Water has reported that in poor regions, food security is often dependent on women’s subsistence production to feed the population. With evidence showing that women are responsible for half of the world’s food production – producing between 60 and 80 percent of the food in most developing countries – women farmers and land holders are critically dependent on having accessible water sources in order to survive.

But the health risks that are facing millions of women due to the lack of water and sanitation go far beyond not having water to irrigate crops, as water-borne diseases are rampant within these developing nations. Diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, typhoid and several parasitic infections are leading to the deaths of many, with diarrheal disease being the second leading cause of death in children under five years old, killing 760,000 each year. According to the World Health Organization, a significant proportion of diarrheal disease can be prevented through safe drinking-water and adequate sanitation and hygiene – basic things that we take for granted here in the United States.

Although these diseases are facing both women and men within these poor regions, a focus on gender difference has proven to be of particular importance with regard to sanitation initiatives as gender-balanced approaches helps ensure that everyone is equally protected. In Bangladesh, a school sanitation project with separate facilities for boys and girls helped boost girls’ attendance 11 percent per year on average from 1992-1999. By providing separate bathroom facilities for both boys and girls, not only are significant health risks being reduced, but also the rates of violence against women which may occur when women have to relieve themselves in the open at night.

With the lack of water and sanitation putting things like education, maternal health, livelihoods, and sexual assault/violence on the line each and every day for millions of women around the world, I begin to look at the water politics in California surrounding the ongoing drought and feel guilty that while we’re fighting about something like the Delta Smelt, there’s a young pregnant African woman who might get killed while crossing a makeshift bridge to reach a bush area to go to the bathroom at night.

I’m not saying that just because there are worse situations that exist in other nations, the problems currently facing us in our own part of the world suddenly become trivialized. I know that the ongoing drought in California is a very serious problem that has had severe impacts on many communities, and continues to threaten the livelihoods of many California farmers. However, I think that if we try to gain a little perspective on how fortunate we really are, and how dire the circumstances truly can become when you look at communities without accessible water for hygiene, drinking and irrigation purposes, we’ll perhaps be able to prioritize our efforts more clearly, and not let bureaucratic politics get in the way of what’s important – getting clean and accessible water to everyone.

 

If you’d like to get involved or donate to some of the efforts being done to help bring clean water and sanitation to the more than 780 million people in the world without this basic human right, visit www.water.org.   

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