SEATTLE — When clean water is scarce in a community, everybody suffers. But around the world, water insecurity disproportionately affects women and girls. They are involved in every step in the process of water use, from collecting and transporting it from the source to allocating and using it in the home. Yet, women are often left out of the discussion when it comes to making policies to increase water security.
The daily walk to fetch water can be perilous, and the women and girls who make the trek may encounter sexual or physical assault along the way or face conflict at points of collection. In the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, women and girls are sometimes kidnapped or raped while making the routine journey.
Carrying water is also physically demanding. In Asia and Africa, women walk an average of 3.7 miles while carrying up to 110 pounds of water on any given day. Women in South Africa alone collectively walk a distance equivalent to traveling to the moon and back 16 times every day to get water for their families. These long distances, accompanied by the weight of each water supply, take their physical toll on the carriers: strained shoulders, backs and necks are common collateral of water-collecting trips. Pregnant women and small girls face additional risks when carrying.
Once they have collected the water, women are burdened with the responsibility of distributing the supply. If a household’s water resources are limited, mothers and wives often prioritize their children’s nutrition and hygiene needs above their own. As a result, the women and girls in the house will lack the clean water they require to fulfill their own basic health needs, such as cleaning their bodies to protect against infection while menstruating.
Even if a family does have consistent access to a water supply, the water that is available may not be safe to consume. Access to contaminated water often leads to heightened risks of diarrheal disease, infections and myriad other painful conditions. Women are typically responsible for helping the afflicted, which adds additional hours of housework onto their already-overpacked schedules. The result is a deficiency in educational and job opportunities for women and girls and the widening of a gender gap that begins at a young age — girls between the ages of five and nine are estimated to spend 40 million more hours each day on household chores than boys.
Health consequences aside, studies show that when women are burdened under conditions of water insecurity, the whole country suffers. Experts estimate that the time women spend collecting water every year in India is tantamount to a national income loss of 10 billion rupees, or $160 million and that improving water security for women and girls could boost the GDP of some countries by as much as 7 percent.
Projects aimed at reducing water insecurity are under way, but studies suggest that these projects would improve greatly in the hands of women. Even though women and girls are most affected by water-improvement legislation, they are rarely offered places at the table when those decisions are being made. Only when women are involved and at the forefront of such efforts will the problems that disproportionately affect women be effectively addressed.
Additionally, when women invest or take ownership of such projects, they are more likely to invest back into their communities. Not only is centralizing women vital to reducing water insecurity, but it is also key to the success of large-scale community developments.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a bilateral U.S. foreign aid agency, recognized this and created women-centered solutions aimed at reducing water insecurity in the island nation of Cabo Verde in 2012. Many residents of Cabo Verde suffer from water insecurity, with only 59 percent of residents accessing piped water on their properties or in their homes and 20 percent possessing a connection to a sewer.
To expand water access to more of Cabo Verde’s population, MCC and the government of Cabo Verde established the MCC-Cabo Verde Compact. The initiative considers the voices of women and other marginalized people in the development of new water-collection and sanitation facilities, ensuring that the solutions will be available to all.
The compact has proved effective thus far. The newly-created Social Access Fund, for example, fulfills its purpose of improving access to clean water in poor, women-led households. It has already created more than 2,000 new sanitation facilities and 3,000 new linkages to the water network. Additionally, under the compact, the government of Cabo Verde’s National Agency for Water and Sanitation now includes an Office of Environment and Gender and Social Integration. The office’s gender analyses inform national decisions in pursuit of inclusivity and accessibility to water and sanitation reforms.
MCC and the government of Cabo Verde estimate that the compact’s many reforms will continue to provide women in Cabo Verde with more educational and employment opportunities for years to come, ultimately lifting them out of poverty and improving Cabo Verde’s economy. The success of the compact demonstrates the positive outcomes that result from inclusive policies and reforms. When policymakers put women at the center of their strategies for reducing water insecurity, women, the community and the whole country benefit.
– Sabine Poux