Ignore water, ignore women
Will 2010 be the year that the prime issue facing most women and girls in developing countries earns the recognition and action it deserves?
Water, toilets and hygiene - there can be nothing more basic than this.
And yet these issues continually slide from the political priority list and lack the funds and action required to change this awful reality, mostly borne by poor women around the globe.
This week UNICEF and the World Health Organization released the latest figures from around the world on how many people there are who can’t just turn on a tap and access safe water – a staggering 884 million people can’t do this, one in eight people sharing the world today.
The situation for toilets is so much worse. 2.6 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation- that means they hide behind buildings, behind trees, along waterways and rivers and beaches, spreading germs and disease wide and far into the water systems they rely on for life. For women and girls this means waking before dawn to find a private place to relieve themselves and then ‘holding on’ all day until nightfall, prisoners of the daylight.
Luckily there’s the chance to change this situation and improve the lives of millions. World Water Day on 22nd March will bring the issue once again to the world’s attention. To mark the day there will be a UN General Assembly debate on water. A few weeks later, the ﬁrst ever High-Level Meeting on Sanitation and Water with ministers and top officials will be held in Washington DC, hopefully to be attended by our Minister for Foreign Affairs.
This meeting has the potential to really inject new momentum into these issues, and this is what is needed. The figures released last night show that the international target for sanitation will be met 30 years too late, that’s a billion people too late. Over the coming weekend campaigners in 61 countries all around the world will be taking part in a world record attempt to form the World’s Longest Toilet Queue – the queue organized by Lift the Lid and WaterAidin Melbourne will be the first to get going.
Tina Rosenberg, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist from America, nails the issue in her new article in National Geographic “If the millions of women who haul water long distances had a faucet by their door, whole societies could be transformed”. It’s true. And in ways you wouldn’t necessarily have imagined either.
Last week I was in Vanuatu to find out about the changes in women and men’s lives from improving water supply and toilets. We found out that since having a tap at their doorstep, women were no longer suffering from violence and conflicts with their husbands. In their previous life of hardship, collecting water from the valley floor several hours away was a continual daily burden, and when women asked for help with this heavy task, things commonly degenerated to violence and in the Bislama language ‘kilim’ or hitting.
At Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS, we have been working with International Women’s Development Agency to uncover stories like this from the Pacific and bring to people’s attention how issues of equality between women and men are closely interlinked with the issue of lack of water, toilets and hygiene.
The benefits you might expect like reduced heavy work for women and healthier families are widespread. But what is more intriguing, is that women’s strong motivation to assist and make projects like this happen also earns them respect in their communities, and can give them the chance to have input to decision-making spaces that were previously forbidden and the sole domain of men. In this way, giving access to water and involving women in that process plants a seed for transformation in that community.
As Tina points out “lack of water is at the centre of a vicious circle of inequality”. As long as the issues in life that most concern women and girls are ignored, we deny these women both the basic tools for physical survival as well as the chance to a better life, free of all sorts of oppression.
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