The grim reality of the global water crisis is that it disproportionately impacts on women. Primarily, it is women who manage water in the household; it is women who tend to crops, and it is women who have the main responsibility for raising children. Lack of access to water substantially increases the burden of their responsibilities. The relatively low status of women in many societies and their lack of economic and cultural power may help to explain why issues of water access and sanitation do not enjoy the global profile that they deserve.
It is no surprise then that women have often suffered disproportionately from the push to privatise water in the developing world. In many cases however they have also been at the forefront of successfully fighting back and developing workable, public approaches to meeting their communities' water and sanitation needs. It is time that international decision makers recognised that women, as experts must be at the heart of developing and delivering solutions to the global water crisis.
Why water access is critical for women
In most parts of the world women are the 'water managers' for their families. Lack of access to water impacts on:
· Household chores: cooking,
· Cleaning, washing
· Food production
· Sanitation needs
Impacts of water on women
It is usually women who are responsible for household cleaning, cooking and washing. All these tasks require water. The role of sourcing water also normally falls to women and girls. Hours are taken out of their days collecting water, time that could have been spent earning money, receiving an education, or caring for their children.
This work is also extremely physically demanding with women carrying weights of approximately 20kg. In South Africa, the total number of kilometres walked each day by the female population, in the course of gathering water for their families, is the equivalent of sixteen times to the moon and back. In India, there are accounts of fathers refusing to let their daughters marry unless their new husband has secure access to water because of the burden it places on women and their households.
For women who have childcare responsibilities, the burden of keeping their children healthy and happy in the absence of safe water and adequate sanitation facilities can be heavy. A child dies every 15 seconds from water-related diseases, such as diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera and dysentery. In fact, child mortality rates correlate more closely with lack of access to water and sanitation facilities then with any other factor, including overall poverty levels or access to health facilities.
Diseases linked to inadequate water and sanitation contribute to many of the serious health problems faced by mothers and their capacity to cope with difficulties during pregnancy, childbirth and beyond, especially in terms of their ability to care for and breastfeed their baby. Bottle-fed infants, in the absence of sterile conditions and clean water, are at a much higher risk of water-borne illness than their breastfed counterparts.
Women are responsible for half of the world's food production and in most developing countries rural women produce between 60-80 per cent of the food. But women own less than two per cent of the world's private land. Lack of resources mean women often have to rely on rain to water their crops. A study of the status of rural women in Karnataka state in India showed that over 61 per cent of women were seriously affected by the seasonal availability of water.
Women have specific sanitation needs, yet in many areas there are no adequate toilet facilities. Urinating, defecating or dealing with menstrual hygiene in public is not only humiliating but can also be dangerous, especially at night where rape and assault can be genuine risks.
Where girls have to collect water, this often prevents them from going to school, as collecting water is too time-consuming or too tiring. Studies also show that schools without latrines can have a negative impact on girls' enrolment and attendance, especially once they have begun to menstruate. A survey of 70 schools in Bangladesh found that in only two schools was there a separate toilet for girls.
Women fight back
Water privatisation has been pushed as the solution to the global water crisis over the last 15 years, yet this has failed poor people, most notably women. Prices have increased and access to water has not significantly improved. There are, however, many examples around the world where women have come together and played a leading role in fighting to keep water in public hands.
Bolivia. In Bolivia the struggle against water privatisation has taken on epic proportions. Women's traditional role as mothers has become politicised and these 'supermadres' (super mothers) have gained access to political and public arenas, and have been at the forefront of the campaign against the US water company Bechtel. "The women suggested forms of action, they spoke up saying we mustn't back down ... Seeing the energy of these women ... was contagious." Oscar Olivera, a leader in the Cochabamba water wars.
South Africa. Here women are fighting against the installation of pre-paid water meters and the decision to limit the free basic water supply available to households, as the poorer sections of the community simply cannot afford to buy water. Four women and one man are pursuing a legal case demanding that this be declared unlawful and unconstitutional. Grace Munyai is one of them. She looks after her niece living with AIDS. Grace cannot afford to buy water once her free supply of water has run out as she is a full time carer - yet she needs an ample water supply to care adequately for her niece. This means that Grace has to do a 6km round trip every time she needs more water during the month, from a local 'free' water source.
Ukraine. MAMA-86 is a group of mothers concerned about the one million people in the Ukraine who lack access to safe water. They fought hard against Suez taking over water supplies in Odessa, and "after two years of confidential negotiations Suez stopped its activities in Odessa. Suez found the economical situation in Ukraine unsuitable because people can't pay the fees Suez wanted." Director MAMA-86.
Globally, women have played a key role in sustaining local community run water projects. In 2003 in India over 1,000 women attended a conference to discuss both the main challenges of managing water as a community and agricultural resource and how to gain an equal role in its use and control. A study by the International Water and Sanitation Centre of community and water sanitation projects across 15 countries, found that the projects that had full participation of women were more sustainable and effective than those that were not.
Women have also been at heart of many of the public sector reform processes of state-owned water supplies; in Porto Alegre, Brazil for example where participatory decision making was critical to successful reform of the water system that now sees water delivered to 99.5 per cent of the population. This process allowed women to expand from their roles as household water managers to help develop water services in the wider local community.
Today almost half of the world’s women still have no adequate water and sanitation at home or within their communities. Shortage, indignity, sickness, drudgery, deprivation- this is their water world. Women suffer the most from these deficiencies. Working for and with women, Parliamentarians can engage everyday to change this. Delivering water and sanitation reliably changes a woman’s world.
Providing women access to vital water and sanitation
People need water everyday. Without affordable and reliable water supply and effective sanitation, basic human rights are infringes. More than 1.6 million children under the age of 5 die every year simply because the water they drink is not safe. 1.2 billion People worldwide (300million) in Africa have no access to clean and safe drinking water supply. That is one person in 6 worldwide. Even more than this -2.6 billion people (313 million in Africa) –do not have proper sanitation. Who does this mainly affect? Women and children. Women are the first to suffer from unsafe water and lack of toilets and sewers. The Women and Water for Development Programme (WWDP) Africa aim at improving access to water and improving sanitation conditions that would benefit women across Africa.
As decision makers within the community/grassroots level, Parliamentarians could become leaders to help deliver clean and safe water and adequate sanitation for women across Africa.
The project would therefore look at the following areas:
· What is the Impact on Women and Girls
· Women play a major role in managing water
· How Parliamentarians can change women’s lives.
· Decreasing infant mortality
· Connecting poor people to water networks
· Sanitation improves women’s lives
· Capacity building for women and water.
· The way forward.
Voices from Sierra Leone
"Carrying water back up the hill gives me a lot of aches and pains, but this water is safer for drinking ... I go up and down the hill two or three times a day to get water for me and my three children." Marian Turay
"I collect spring water from here, I know it is not clean, but I have no choice." Zeynab Komte
"My son has typhoid and malaria from drinking dirty water, and he is missing school as a result. It is very costly to treat his illnesses." Sia Semessi
Women, Water and the MDGs
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are international commitments to reduce global poverty by 2015. MDG 3 aims to promote gender equality and empower women and MDG 7 includes the aim to halve the proportion of people with out access to clean water and sanitation by 2015. These two goals are inextricably linked. The Water Millennium Development Goal will not be reached unless women's knowledge and experience are at the heart of delivering it.
Women have played a crucial role as water managers in their homes and local communities -through anti-privatisation struggles, participating in local water projects and in public sector reform initiatives. The importance of women's participation in water issues has been recognised over the years but they remain under-represented in the broader water industry. Careers in water management are still dominated by men, both nationally and internationally. Even a UN representative has said that much remains to be done to give women an equal say in decisions about water, including location of water sources, rules of use and penalties for misuse, and the distribution of water among competing interests.
There are now 40 women ministers of water or environment across the world. This is a positive step, but action must also be taken at the grassroots level. South Africa, Lesotho and Uganda are leading the way; their women ministers for water are taking specific action to train women in water issues. 'Women in Water' awards and a bursary for young women to take up careers in the water sector in South Africa have also proved to be a successful means of empowering women.
It is time to end the exclusion of the skills and experience of far too many women. Finding and implementing solutions to the global water crisis must be a democratic and transparent process, but most importantly it must represent the whole community. Without women there will be no solution.
To support this campaign I call upon people within the non water sector to take action is various ways such stop drinking bottled water or if you have to drink it some percentage was go towards funding access to clean and safe water and adequate sanitation for the poor. Sign petitions to campaigns supporting good water governance. Many people in developed countries use more water than is needed. We should all learn to use less water and electricity.
Visit the following website:
5th World Water Forum
World Water Council
Global Water Partnership (GWP)
Gender and Water Alliance (GWA)
"The challenge before us is not of water alone, it is one of civilisation and culture. We have to lay the foundation of a new culture of equality, fraternity and sisterhood. Our Planet needs a new direction, and the women have a vital role to play”
Ms Rosemary Olive Mbone Enie
Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
Women International Coalition Organization (WICO) International
Global Water Sustainability Forum (GWSF)
Water Voices from Around the World