While many communities across the world experience water scarcity, one group is disproportionately affected by water shortages. There is a prominent link between gender equality and water. For women and girls the burden of collecting water and the lack of access to bathrooms severely affects their quality of life. At Elliot for Water, we encourage that women and girls’ voices are heard in order to create the best sanitation solutions for everyone.
Fetching enough water for your family every day is an extremely physically demanding task. Not only is it estimated that women in the global south spend 200 million hours every day just fetching water, but the act of fetching water is incredibly physically draining. A jerry can is a popular container used to carry water from the pump to home, and when full it will hold five gallons of water and weigh over 40 pounds. This is a colossal task for a woman to undertake, carrying this weight for miles, often perched on her head. Over time, this often causes back and neck problems and walking for miles in the blistering sun can also lead to dehydration and sunstroke.
Pregnant women should carry no more than 25 pounds, but since they often have to choose between carrying heavy jerry cans of water for miles or no access to water at all, they must continue carrying large amounts of water from the pump to home. This can create complications in pregnancy and can lead to a higher risk of injury. Girls often start carrying water young and this can also lead to lifelong health issues if they don’t have the strength to lift the full jerry cans safely.
Water collection and the lack of access to clean water facilities poses dangerous risks to women and girls. The risk of gender-based violence is high, and trips to collect water before the livestock access it often must happen at night. Women and girls are subjected to the risks of wild animal attacks and rape - but collecting water from a flowing water source - like a river - is also dangerous. A sudden change in current or flooding could sweep away jerry cans, clothes and even young girls.
Additionally, women often wait until it’s night to go to the toilet because they lack a private, clean space. They are then at a higher risk of sexual assault, rape and animal attacks, but there is nothing they can do to minimise this.
There are many UNICEF studies that indicate the closer a water source is to the family home, the longer a girl will stay in education. On a global scale, each year a girl stays in education, her future income will rise by 15-25%. Girls can’t attend school when they have to spend the majority of their time fetching water. Additionally, when teenage girls start to menstruate, many of them drop out because there is nowhere at school because there is a lack of access to bathroom facilities.
A lack of access to water prevents women from doing more valuable work and reduces the time they can spend with their families. On average, women spend three and a half hours collecting water every single day. This is time that they could spend maintaining a steady, stable job, pursue training and education or spend more time with family and friends. However, it’s still a sacrifice that many are willing to make because they need to provide water for their families. Water collection can also provide an income which can allow women to put their children through school.
If there is no safe access to clean water nearby, many women will continue to carry water for miles because there is no other option. Many will sacrifice their own needs in favour of their partner or their children’s needs, and many are forced to drink contaminated water because it is the only option available.
By providing access to clean water in communities, many of these problems can be avoided and the image of women carrying water for miles becomes a relic of the past. Women and girls must be involved in successful sanitation projects. Not only will women know what is needed most, but by allowing them to take roles in the communities’ water sanitation, their social standing will grow. It is also important to engage men in changing their attitudes about gender norms and power dynamics. The issues related towards water and gender equality should be a thing of the past. Women should be involved in sanitation from community level all the way up to governmental roles too. If women’s voices are present, then we can ensure that sanitation works for them.
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