Why Water Matters (More) for Women

I’ll be the first to admit that I take water for granted. I don’t give much thought to how privileged I am every time I flush a toilet or drink filtered water without exerting any more effort than walking to the refrigerator. And yes, I indulge in long, hot showers and leave the water running when I brush my teeth. I’m a water wasting monster.

Okay, so “monster” may be a bit of an exaggeration. But it is true that I waste water and need to stop. In fact, this World Water Day, I am  publicly pledging to reduce my egregious over-consumption of water. Why? Because it doesn’t seem fair that I have a limitless supply of clean, running water when, according to WaterAid, 768 million people globally do not have access to safe drinking water. That’s 1 in 10 of the world’s population. What’s more, 2.5 billion people — or 1 in 3 — have no toilet.

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You’re probably wondering why I’m writing about water on a feminist site. Because, as with most of life’s necessities (food, health care, education), women and girls are affected disproportionately by a lack of water and sanitation. Women in developing countries typically walk an average distance of four miles every day to get water, carrying jerry cans of 40+ pounds. This is an incredibly time-consuming and physically demanding activity. According to trust.org, 26% of women’s time in rural Africa is spent collecting water, amounting to 40 billion hours total each year. Those are hours women and girls could be spending in school, at work or simply playing.

Once a girl begins menstruating, sanitation becomes all the more imperative. Without safe water or gender-segregated toilets in school, many girls drop out, putting an abrupt end to her education and curtailing future earning potential. And once pregnant, safe water, sanitation and proper hygiene can literally be a matter of life or death.

Self-disclosure: I have a flair for the dramatic when I need to use the bathroom. I can’t even begin to count the number of times (especially while pregnant) I’ve said something along the lines of, “I’m going to DIE if I don’t get to a toilet NOW!” That’s another thing I should probably stop doing, because there are so very many women and girls who face harassment, abuse and worse when they need to relieve themselves:

“Women who have to walk through fields or into bushes – or even to a fetid, overflowing community toilet – to find a place to relieve themselves are immediately made vulnerable to harassment, or worse.

A spate of brutal attacks on young women in India’s urban centres, most recently a young woman in Calcutta who died after being gang-raped and set on fire, have drawn world attention. But thousands of other women are preyed upon at vulnerable moments, whether it’s riding a bus, walking alone or, in the case of girls like Bhawna, looking for a place to relieve themselves. It often becomes a situation of risking rape to reach a toilet.

“We have had had one-on-one fights with thugs in order to save our daughters from getting raped. It then becomes a fight that either you kill me to get to my daughter or you back off,” one mother in a Delhi slum told researchers in a 2011 study funded by WaterAid and DfID’s Sanitation and Hygiene Applied Research for Equity.” (via HuffingtonPost)

It’s difficult to imagine risking rape to reach a toilet — and that means I’m lucky. Please join me in urging Congress to support the Water for the World Act (you can read all about the Act here), giving girls and women the gift of more time in school and less time traveling for water or squatting in a field. Their lives depend on it.

Categories: Health

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