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Water & Sanitation, a Better Future for Girls & our Planet

At a hand pump in Village Mata Devi, Rajasthan, India. Credit: UNICEF/Panjwan

DAKAR, Senegal, Mar 24 2022 (IPS) - At the World Water Forum this week (March 21-26), the international community will raise awareness of the 2 billion people worldwide who lack access to clean water and sanitation. Among them are millions of women and girls, who walk hundreds of miles each year to find water for their families and are blocked from education and economic empowerment also due to poor sanitation services.

For years, we’ve talked about the costs to women and girls if we don’t solve water, sanitation and hygiene issues. But what of the costs to our communities if we fail to act?

Today the world is facing a triple crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate emergency, and struggling economies – all of which have reversed hard won gains on women’s rights.

Twelve years of quality education for women can meet the consequences of this triple crisis head on. Women’s empowerment, gender equality, and sustainability strategies go hand-in-hand. And it all starts with that most basic of human needs – water.

Poverty, gender bias and humanitarian crises are some of the more obvious barriers to ensuring that girls stay in school. However, one of the biggest obstacles is lack of access to water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Every day, millions of children go to school in unsafe learning environments, with no drinking water, no proper toilets, and no soap for washing their hands. Nearly 584 million children worldwide lack basic drinking water services at their schools, while 698 million children lack basic sanitation services, and nearly 818 million children lack basic hygiene.

Sanitation facilities that are shared with other households and open defecation practices place women and girls at risk for sexual assault and impede their ability to manage menstruation with privacy and dignity.

Stigma and social exclusion around periods lead many girls to drop out of school. Without proper sanitation, one in three adolescent girls misses school each month due to lack of privacy and access to water to wash their hands after changing sanitary towels.

Simply ensuring that schools have safe water, toilets and soap for handwashing, increases the likelihood that girls will attend while on their periods.

Better and resilient access to clean water translates into immediate economic improvements. Reducing the time women and girls take to collect water and giving them more time for school and careers. Over the next two weeks alone, women will miss out on 2.5 million working days while fetching water.

A World Bank study estimates that limited educational opportunities for girls cost countries between US$15 and 30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings. That is the sort of avoidable economic car crash that any decent policy-makers should be rushing to solve.

But the benefits extend far beyond economic gain alone. Take for example, the rising climate crisis which is driving mass displacement, intensifying food insecurity and fueling violent competition over dwindling natural resources in many regions of the world.

Extreme weather patterns have immense impact on women and girls – increasing maternal mortality as pregnant women on the run from climate disasters lack access to vital health services and heightening the risk of human trafficking as women and girls flee to find shelter.

Our humanitarian sectors are desperate for more bright women leaders at the table, with solutions to the problems they face each and every day. And the research is proving that they are more than equal to the task.

A study in India discovered that the number of drinking water projects in areas with women-led councils was 62 per cent higher than in those with men-led councils. More than powerless victims, women are already spearheading transformative change. It is our duty as the international community to remove the barriers in their way.

Young female activists can also become powerful agents of change in their communities if they are given the chance to become educated and activated on environmental issues at school. Consider the power and influence of Greta Thunberg who has revolutionized the way we think about climate challenges.

Indeed, research suggests that girls’ education can strengthen climate strategies in three ways: by empowering girls and advancing their reproductive health and rights, fostering girls’ climate leadership and pro-environmental decision-making, and developing girls’ green skills for green jobs.

If we are truly going to tackle the triple threat of health, economy and climate change, the international community must prioritize the needs of women and girls. We must ensure access to proper water, sanitation and hygiene services, so that they are able to stay in school and focus on their futures.

It is economic common sense. It is a moral obligation. And more than that, it is a legal obligation too. Governments around the world have undertaken a pledge to uphold international human rights, for all people everywhere. It is time we kept our promises.

Looking at this year’s roll call for the Sector Ministers’ Meeting, organized by the Sanitation and Water for All partnership in Jakarta, there is reason for optimism.

For the first time it will bring together ministers of water, sanitation and hygiene with their counterparts responsible for climate, environment, health and economy. Without a genuinely integrated policy approach, we can’t hope to realize the overlapping benefits of something as important as girls’ education.

If we want to contain climate change, if we want economic progress, if we want to hold back the next pandemic, then we need to secure quality education, water, and sanitation for all women and girls, everywhere.

Our future depends on it.

Dr. Aminata Touré sits on the Global Leadership Council of Sanitation and Water for All – a global partnership to achieve universal access to clean water and adequate sanitation. She is a noted human rights activist and former Prime Minister of Senegal.

IPS UN Bureau


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