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.
There is a great deal of evidence behind it, too. 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, it violates their right to health, exposing them to a variety of diseases, diarrhea, and it can even contribute to 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, 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 deaths can be linked to poor WASH.
Any effort to improve women’s health and rights 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. There are many ways that this requirement might be met, including by providing private, secure latrines and menstrual hygiene management supplies at school, since many girls drop out once they reach adolescence. However, in spite of the fact that WASH access could address a major, direct barrier to girls’ secondary education, only 7.5% of U.S. government investments in WASH are spent in the 10 countries where women and girls have the lowest rates of secondary education completion. To me, this is a real missed opportunity—and an example of poor targeting of WASH funds for integrated approaches and cross-cutting benefits to women and girls.
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. We stand ready to support our Congressional champions in getting the bill to the President’s desk this year. We hope you will join us.