Five Ways Clean Water Can Improve the Lives of Women

1. Improved health

Women in developing countries walk an average of six kilometers a day to collect water. They frequently fill jerry cans which can weigh over 40 pounds and carry those cans on their back or head to their homes. Not only do many women suffer physical injury from carrying heavy containers over long distances, they often suffer illness from the water they collect. There is no guarantee that the water women walk for hours to procure is clean. In developing countries, over 80 percent of illnesses are linked to poor water and sanitation conditions.  Clean water alone can reduce water-related deaths by 21 percent.

2. Increased access to education

Water scarcity affects the ability of young women to attend school and receive empowering educations. In many communities, women and young girls share the primary burden of providing water for a family. It is often impossible for young women to attend school after walking miles each day to collect water. Lack of access to clean water and safe sanitation facilities at schools also hinders the ability of women to attend class when they reach puberty. In the best case, girls make the decision to remain at home one week each month, a decision which puts them behind when they return to school. In the worst case, and most common, girls fall too far behind in their education and drop out of school completely. In Byimana Primary School in Rwanda, a concerned teacher promoted the construction of safe, sanitary bathrooms for the young women attending the school. In 2008, a year before the new bathrooms were constructed, only 14.7 percent of girls passed the national exam to go on to secondary school. The following year, 76 percent of girls passed the exam. Two years later, 87.5 percent passed. These numbers provide staggering evidence of the significant impact clean water and sanitation can have on the lives of young women.

3. Improved access to employment opportunities

Women are often unable to work and provide income because their time is consumed by walking to find water. Each day, 200 million work hours are consumed by women collecting water for their families. In some urban slums, such as those in Nairobi or Mumbai, women spend several hours each day waiting for water to arrive on a truck. They have no control over the price of water, the quality of the water or when the truck arrives. It is impossible for them to take jobs with fixed hours as their schedule must revolve around when the water arrives. With improved access to water, women are able to pursue income-generating jobs and contribute to household finances. In a success story recounted by the Replenish Africa Initiative, Nadia Faisal Gaber, a woman living in Egypt, said that her days were consumed by the need to find water. After fresh water was supplied to her village, she had more time to properly care for her family. She was also able to begin generating money by raising poultry at home.

4. Reduced risk of rape and assault

Traveling long distances to collect water and fuel can place women and girls in dangerous situations. Not only do women face the risk of animal attacks, but they face the threat of violence, sexual assault and rape. In a study produced by Doctors Without Borders, researchers found that 82 percent of almost 500 women treated for rape in West and South Darfur were attacked while gathering water, firewood or thatch. Women are faced with the difficult decision of either putting family members at risk of dehydration and illness without water, or putting themselves at risk of attack. The study proposed expanding access to clean water as the best solution to this problem, which is not even mitigated by encouraging women to travel in groups: Sixty-five percent of the women in the Doctors Without Borders study were actually in a group when they were attacked. Many of these women were also traveling in the company of men, but were still subjected to sexual violence.

5. Greater dignity for women

Globally, less than one in three people have access to a toilet. In many countries, it is unacceptable for women to relieve themselves during the day, so they must wait all day until nightfall in order to have privacy. When women wait all day to relieve themselves, they put themselves at risk of illness as well as sexual violence, as they are often forced to relive themselves in dangerous locations. With improved access to water, especially in rural communities, women are more likely to have sanitary facilities and the ability to wash themselves and their children more frequently. Women suffering from water scarcity in Egypt noted that they were able to wash themselves and their children only once or twice each week. Improved access to water means increased dignity and self-esteem for women and young girls in developing areas.

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