Good News for Women This March, But A Call to Do More
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.
It’s been a big month for water!
Not only did the 56th Commission on the Status of Women focus on the needs of rural women and girls—where access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation can be a significant barrier to equity, empowerment, health and education—but we had huge news from the UN just last week: The Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target on access to safe water worldwide has been reached.
This target, agreed by all governments in the year 2000, was to halve the proportion of people without safe water by 2015. It is fitting that the news came out last week, two days before we celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8, and two weeks before World Water Day on March 22: women and girls are disproportionately impacted by the global water and sanitation crises.
Women and girls carry the burden of fetching water on a daily basis. Often, this prevents them from engaging in more productive activities, such as generating an income, caring for family members and doing domestic work. Girls are also called upon to help in the gathering of water. This prevents them from going to school or having time and energy to study. Sexual violence and other attacks are constant threats to women as they seek clean water sources in isolated places.
It’s wonderful news that we have reached the MDG target on water. Yet, I propose that we view this not only as a celebration, but as a call to action as well. Here’s why.
The MDG targets are global. That means that it is possible to reach them without doing the really hard stuff, such as reaching the people who live in the most remote places or the ones who are members of groups often shunned by society. In addition, the target on halving the proportion of people living without sanitation remains the furthest off track of any MDG target. In fact, at the current pace, this sanitation target won’t be met in sub-Saharan Africa for another 200 years.
The poorest and most vulnerable in the world probably weren’t celebrating our water-access victory last week. Instead, they may have been sick with diarrhea from unsafe water, watching their children die of water-borne diseases, or waiting until dark to relieve themselves because they didn’t want to suffer the indignity of defecating in the open.
However, this is not a story of gloom and doom. That we met the water MDG target means we are learning and doing better. We are taking seriously the life-threatening issue of unsafe drinking water, and we are building capacity in communities around the world to respond to these needs themselves.
It’s time to recommit to applying these lessons so we ensure universal access to safe drinking water. Equally importantly, we must redouble our commitment to providing access to sanitation. Without a way to safely and cleanly dispose of human waste, that newly-clean water won’t stay clean for long.
This World Water Day, I will be leading a diverse group of advocates to Capitol Hill, where we will spend the day meeting with Members of Congress to tell them about how much more remains to be done before we can safely celebrate the end of the water and sanitation crises. We will also be urging them to pass the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act, a vital piece of legislation that could improve the effectiveness of existing aid for water without spending any money. That would truly be another cause for celebration, especially for the world’s poorest women and girls. We’re making progress; now it’s time to act.