How Access to Water and Sanitation Helps Women and Girls

Katherine Bliss
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Global Health Policy Center and Senior Fellow, Americas Program

In previous posts I have focused on the challenge of gender-based violence in Latin America and the Caribbean, noting the high percentage of women in the region reporting some form of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse by spouses or intimate partners.  I also highlighted the importance of programs that empower girls and women through education and income-generating activities; raise family and community awareness about gender-based violence; encourage police and social services agencies to both enforce laws against gender-based violence and protect and support victims of abuse; and inform policy makers about the negative social, political, and economic implications of gender-based violence in the region.  These educational, legal, and policy approaches can have a direct and positive impact on the lives of women and girls in Latin America and the Caribbean – and beyond.

Today I want to highlight what might seem to be an indirect approach to preventing gender-based violence, but which has proven to be extraordinarily important in a variety of settings: ensuring access to drinking water and sanitation facilities. 

In many developing countries, girls and women bear the burden of fetching water for household use.  They travel great distances to wells or boreholes, wait in long lines for their turn to collect water, and then lug heavy buckets or jerry cans several miles back to their communities.  Beyond the educational and occupational opportunities lost to lengthy hours spent walking and waiting, girls and women face violence and sexual abuse while visiting water sources, as well.  One study at a Sudanese refugee camp in northern Uganda revealed that when girls had to wait long hours at a distant borehole to fill their water cans, they became vulnerable to rape and were often rejected by their families following an attack.   When there are no sanitation facilities within a camp or community, women may decide to wait until nightfall to travel some distance away from the camp to relieve themselves in private; however, this, too, leaves them vulnerable to violence.  The lack of sanitation facilities for girls at schools leads families to keep their daughters at home out of fear that they will face violence within the educational setting.  Indeed, a study in Bangladesh showed that implementing separate sanitation facilities within schools for boys and girls boosted girls’ attendance by 11% per year between 1992 and 1999.   The UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee guidelines on preventing and responding to sexual violence in Haiti following the January 12, 2010 earthquake recommend involving women in the selection of sites for water and sanitation facilities to ensure their safety and security. 

The international community has a strong role to play in addressing global water and sanitation challenges and the links to gender-based violence.  A recent documentary by the Chronicles Group features discussion about the links between water scarcity and gender-based violence and the potential for international action, including that by the U.S. government, to address the water and sanitation needs of the 1 billion who do not have access to safe drinking water and the 2 billion who lack access to sanitation.  Next week marks the fifth anniversary of the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act, which makes providing water and sanitation facilities to the world’s most vulnerable populations an explicit component of U.S. foreign policy.  The Act recognizes that the burden of collecting water often falls on women and children and promotes water and sanitation access as an aspect of women’s empowerment. Since 2005 the U.S. Department of State has reported on U.S. agencies’ overseas water and sanitation investments, and in 2010 reported obligations of $774 million in FY2009.   Currently the proposed Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act, which would expand current U.S. activities related to international water and sanitation challenges, is pending in Congress.  Having passed the Senate in September of this year, it awaits action within the House of Representatives.   

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