Dear Congress: Support Rural Women
Lisa SchechtmanLisa Schechtman is the head of policy and advocacy at WaterAid in America, the U.S. member of WaterAid International, the world’s largest NGO focused on providing safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene education (WASH) services for poor communities in 27 countries around the world. Prior to joining WaterAid, Lisa served as policy director at the Global AIDS Alliance, and was a member of the Developed Country NGO Delegation to the Board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Lisa has a Masters of Arts in International Human Rights and Global Health Affairs from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in English Literature and French Language from Northwestern University. She is based in Washington, DC.
Imagine being a girl growing up in a village in sub-Saharan Africa. There’s a good chance there is no well in your village, and your nearest source of water is a river or a stream that is as many as three miles away over what might be rocky, isolated terrain.
The water may not be safe to drink, because your village probably also lacks sanitation facilities, but it’s your only choice.
So, instead of going to school, you spend at least 30 minutes a day, often longer, walking to the river, filling jerry cans, and struggling home with over 40 pounds on your head. You risk stumbling, animal attacks, sexual assault. At last you get home, and, while you have water to drink, it makes you sick and leaves you caring for family members who are also sick. It doesn’t matter though: you have to do it all over again the next day—and every day after that.
Sadly, this is not the only harm that comes from your basic need for water. Carrying heavy loads can lead to uterine prolapse, a potentially serious and excruciating condition that may result in the inability to ever have children safely.
If you or a family member is living with HIV/AIDS, you need extra water to keep things clean and hopefully stave off infections that kill people with compromised immune systems. That means more trips to the river, more time away from school or work.
If you’re menstruating, you need extra water for hygiene, too; if you’re one of the lucky ones who goes to school, you’re likely to skip it once a month because there’s no water or latrine there, either.
If you’re pregnant, you risk passing health problems onto your baby, because poor nutrition caused by diarrhea doesn’t only affect you. This can mean low birth weight, cognitive delays, and physical stunting. All of which can keep your family in poverty.
Next week, the 56th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) will begin at UN Headquarters. The CSW’s mandate is to review progress on globally-agreed priorities for advancing women’s empowerment and gender equality. Each year, the CSW sets a theme, and leads into the global celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8. While this can be viewed as just another opportunity for the global elite to talk to itself, it is critical for holding ourselves accountable for doing better.
The United States and most governments in the world join thousands of civil society organizations at the CSW every year to discuss key issues and negotiate commitments and recommendations for accelerating action. This year, the focus is on rural women and girls.
For two weeks, governments and NGOs will discuss girls like the one I described. When they are done, governments will have a new set of commitments to work toward, and will be expected to do everything they can to help get there.
This year, we are lucky: the United States currently has a tool available to help meet new and existing commitments on behalf of rural women and girls.
The Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act would considerably improve the US approach to addressing unsafe water and poor sanitation and their disproportionate impact on women and girls. The bill enhances analysis before investing; increases monitoring, evaluation and reporting so we keep learning; improves participation opportunities for women; and increases linkages to other services, such as health care, which can be particularly important in rural areas where distances are long and infrastructure poor. By passing the Water for the World Act, Congress would enable the US to make bold contributions to the recommendations and commitments that will be coming out of the UN in a matter of weeks. All without spending any new money.
Growing up in rural areas without safe drinking water or private latrines can be a make-or-break factor in a girl’s life. How can we pass up the chance to change this equation? All it takes is political will—and your voice, encouraging Congress to prioritize this important legislation.
Imagine being that girl. There are millions of you out there. Join us in telling Congress that we support the Water for the World Act, on behalf of women and girls everywhere.