The Fastest Way to Safe Water for All: Women

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Asha Abdulrahman
Members of the Mwihoko Women Group in Nakuru County, Kenya gather for a ceremony.

Women and children bear the primary responsibility for water collection, spending up to six hours each day collecting water.1,2 In Africa and Asia, women and children walk an average of 3.7 miles per day just to complete this task.3,4 What’s more, those women and girls across the world living without toilets spend 266 million hours every day finding a place to relieve themselves.5 Globally, one third of all schools lack access to safe water and sanitation, causing countless girls to drop out, and, every ninety seconds, a child dies from a water-related disease.6

These are just a few of the many available hard facts illustrating how extremely important it is to give specific and dedicated attention to the link between water and women.

Since its establishment in 2004, Women for Water Partnership (WfWP) has made the case that dramatic success can be achieved by policies recognizing this link. Where this connection is made, results further underline this importance: involving women can make water projects six to seven times more effective.

WfWP has lobbied the United Nations to make this linkage part of its vision for global development. As often happens, grassroots examples show how helping women gain access to water can transform lives. The Mwihoko Women Group in Kenya is a perfect example of the enormous difference that empowering women can make.

In Ndibai Village in Nakuru County, 22 women, fed up with drinking contaminated water from a local river—for which they had to walk many miles in unsafe environments to collect—decided to form a group with the main focus of gaining access to safe water at a reasonable distance.

Initially, the women took part in a rainwater harvesting project which was designed and managed for them by a local nongovernmental organization. However, after the pilot period for the project, the Mwihiko women felt marginalized, and unable to realize the project’s potential. Soroptimist International of Europe, which has a club in Nakuru and is a member of the WfWP Kenya branch, then stepped in to help the women in realizing their ambitions. The women received training about how access to safe water, adequate sanitation, and proper hygiene can help prevent illness and death from diseases such as diarrhea and dysentery. Women were shown how to use taps, and, for those who had water tanks, it was explained that they needed to cover the tanks and clean them once a year. They learned how to use chlorine tablets to kill bacteria in their water, and how to keep the environment clean around water springs, boreholes, and taps. The women were inquisitive and eager to learn.

Curt Carnemark / World Bank
A young woman with an infant on her back carries water in Mali.

Guided by WfWP, the Mwihiko women then partnered with other stakeholders such as local administrators, schools, and health officers to install water tanks at local schools and in households. Filters were put into these tanks, and public health officers checked the quality of the water. In this way, the women learned how to deal with local authorities in order to get things done, get their voices heard, and gain more influence.

Next to water and sanitation, the Mwihiko women dreamed of having a training center for organizing courses for themselves and for other communities in the region. A plan was made to build such a center. However, much to the surprise of the women, the recruited project manager decided to build the training center on his own private land. When the building was finished, the project manager fenced off the area. The women were not allowed to enter the area, could not use the training center, and were unable to make their long-held dream come true. They also discovered that the several rainwater harvesting tanks they had purchased for the project were half the size of those for which they had paid.

The Mwihiko women, despite the disillusion from being conned, turned this crisis into an opportunity, learned from their failures, and pulled their strength. The women raised the money to purchase one hectare of land through the Nakuru council, assisted by a solicitor who managed the legal dealings. On this land, the women built toilets and a new training center—this one truly for themselves.

Thanks to the empowered Mwihiko women, their community is now fully aware of their rights and responsibilities. They have turned from beneficiaries into partners. Open communication and cooperation have been developed with the local authorities to ensure that water provision is managed and maintained properly. Having learned their way around the bureaucracies of the regional council, the women are now asked to help other communities succeed in similar efforts.

The impact that the Mwihiko women made, and continue to make, in their community strengthens the message to decision makers at national and international levels about acknowledging the important role that women play in enabling access to safe water and sanitation. While vastly impressive, the Mwihiko women are not unique. WfWP members deliver many such stories every year from around the globe. All together, these stories clearly illustrate that the solution for a successful implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 on Water starts with the equal participation of women.

References

  1. WHO/UNICEF, Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation. Progress on Sanitation and Drinking Water, 2015. Update and MDG Assessment. UN [online] (2015). http://www.wssinfo.org/fileadmin/user_upload/resources/JMP-Update-report....
  2. UN Water. Water and Gender Factsheet, World Water Day 2013. UN [online] (2013). http://www.unwater.org/fileadmin/user_upload/unwater_new/docs/water_and_....
  3. UNESCO, World Water Assessment Programme. Water for Women: Every woman counts. Every second counts. UN [online] (2015). http://www.unwater.org/fileadmin/user_upload/worldwaterday2015/docs/Wate....
  4. OHCHR, UN-HABITAT & WHO. The Right to Water, Fact Sheet No. 35. UN [online] (2010). http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FactSheet35en.pdf.
  5. Domestos, WaterAid & WSSCC. Why we can’t wait. A report on sanitation and hygiene for women and girls. Worldtoilet.org [online] (2015). http://worldtoilet.org/documents/WecantWait.pdf.
  6. WHO/UNICEF, Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation. Progress on Sanitation and Drinking Water, 2015. Update and MDG Assessment. UN [online] (2015). http://www.wssinfo.org/fileadmin/user_upload/resources/JMP-Update-report....