In Service to Women’s Health This World Water Day, and Every Day

Written by

Lisa Schechtman
Lisa Schechtman Lisa 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.

Water is a women’s issue.

It’s an important adage, one that highlights how we expect governments to prioritize investments in safe drinking water, sanitation, hygiene (WASH), and water resource management. It links to the theme of this year’s World Water Day, too.

On March 22, we will focus on the role that water plays in forging partnerships and collaboration, sometimes between unlikely suspects, under the UN’s chosen theme of water cooperation. That’s because water cooperation forces us to think about how water relates to everything we do, much as women’s rights relate to everything, as well.

There is a great deal of evidence behind the assertion that water is a women’s issue. Every year, 40 billion working hours are lost to water collection worldwide, mostly by women and girls. This violates their rights to employment and education by taking up time and energy; and their rights to safety and dignity by exposing them to injury, animal attack, and physical and sexual violence. Since the water they collect is usually unsafe (if it were safe, chances are they wouldn’t have to walk far to get it, because a tap would be available near home), it violates their right to health, exposing them to Neglected Tropical Diseases, diarrhea, even uterine prolapse from carrying heavy loads.

Sanitation is a women’s issue, too. Lack of sanitation, combined with poor hygiene, allows for the ingestion of fecal matter (stunting, cognitive delays, and diarrhea are common results), creates breeding grounds for vectors of diseases like trachoma, and contaminates water sources. Emerging research emphasizes that lack of WASH impacts maternal health.  In fact, one estimate is that 4% of all maternal mortality can be linked to poor WASH.

Addressing these intersecting issues takes cooperation between different branches of government and women at local and national levels. For example, any effort to improve women’s health must address WASH. Yet, WASH suffers from the same siloed approach as many other health, development and human rights issues. Policies abound, from a new USAID water strategy expected soon, to the agency’s lauded Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy. It remains to be seen whether USAID will show leadership by requiring that the one be in service to the other. Or, if there will be accountability for using WASH to make the most of the US President’s Global Health and Feed the Future Initiatives, both of which recognize the role of WASH to their success while doing little to support or promote it.

Recently, I analyzed the US Department of State’s annual report on compliance with the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005, which mandated USAID and State prioritize WASH and water investments for the world’s poorest, and those who would benefit most from receiving access, including women and girls. I found that we are both on the right track and missing massive opportunities to do the greatest good possible.

For example, when I looked at how USAID invests its funding in sanitation, I discovered that the countries with the greatest need, where less than 20% of the population already has a basic pit latrine or better, received less than 20% of USAID’s WASH funding in fiscal year 2011. Yet, as we’ve seen, sanitation is one of the most basic needs in the world and a gap that 35% of the world’s population must deal with multiple times every day. We can do better than that. In fact, US law requires it.

This and other problems like it are why the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act has had such strong, bipartisan support in both the US House and Senate in recent years. While it didn’t become law last year, we remain in need of the bill’s efforts to require improved attention to the needs of women and girls and the many positive ripple effects of providing WASH to the world’s poorest people. When the Water for the World Act is reintroduced later this spring, we hope you will join us. In the meantime, join the conversation about World Water Day to help keep a spotlight on these issues. Share our new infographic with your friends. Tweet about #WorldWaterDay. Call your Members of Congress to tell them you care. Let’s not miss another opportunity to do right by the women and girls who need water and sanitation most.

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