If millions of women who haul water over unimaginable distances had safe water access, whole societies could be transformed. But safe water access is hardly a reality. Research suggests that in 8 out of 10 households with water off-premises, women and girls are primarily responsible to fetch water for household needs. Simply because water collection is considered a woman's job: because she is born female, she must walk for miles through dangerous routes at odd times of the day to make sure her family has enough water for the day. Her age is never a consideration, the only thing that varies is the size of the water container she carries; from a 2-litre kettle to a 20-litre jerrycan.
Over the last seven years, we have met many women and girls who have showed us they are capable of so much more - once they're relieved of the miles worth of water walk every day. With access to clean water, they become better students and happier children, healthier moms and some even become entrepreneurs. 13-year-old Matilda is one such example, she says she had to wake up at dawn every day and because she was afraid to walk through the woods to get to the river, she would wait for her older siblings to wake up and that would make her late to school. But things changed when Project Maji built a kiosk In the Kojo Ashong Community:
For 32-year-old Margaret Lankoi, the Maji kiosk in the Gyamtutu Community meant relief from her lifelong neck pain. Before Project Maji brought clean and safe water to her village, Margaret would pack up to four jerrycans on two donkeys and often carry one 20-liter jug herself. She would harness the jerrycan with a strap and wrap it around the top of her head, resting the 44-pound container on her back.
“I knew I had to carry it on my back, but it was not easy,” she says. “I often felt pain in my back, but there was no choice.”
Some days she was too tired to go, but that didn’t mean she didn’t go looking for water. The family wouldn’t have anything to eat or drink if she rested two days from collecting water. Most of the women in the community were in the same boat when it comes to painful water carrying. Thankfully, on 22nd March 2017, Project Maji inaugurated a solar-powered water kiosk in the community and Margaret's life took a happy turn. Her back pain eased and in the absence of hours of water hauling she can enjoy more time with her little ones. Importantly, with reduced distance to and from the water source also comes the assurance of safety for women like Margaret. For instance, with the Maji kiosk situated in the heart of communities, 96% women report feeling safer while accessing water in the communities we work.
Yet, millions of women and girls still await the promise of safe water access. Every day the water crisis goes unsolved is another day that millions of women and girls are exposed to a multitude of consequences including health and safety risks and missed opportunities their male counterparts can enjoy. Let's have an evidence-based look at some of these consequences:
For women water insecurity means higher risk of violence
Intimate partner violence triggered by insufficient water is the most prominent physical consequence faced by women. In order to avoid such situations, women are willing to give the collected water ratios to men in the family, making difficult trade-offs and forgoing personal water use entirely. Naturally, this negatively impacts personal hygiene needs, giving rise to serious health challenges.
Long water walks at odd times of the day and even night, expose women to the risk of sexual violence. To illustrate this with an example, a 16-year-old girl from Uganda reports being routinely harassed by boys and men along the way. They threaten her with extreme violence, rape and even death. Her friends face the same threat, one of whom is pregnant after an attack. More evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa affirms community women’s heightened vulnerability on routine water walks: “traveling long distances, exacerbated by the predictability of community women’s water-fetching routines, afforded assailants the opportunity to attack women who were isolated, alone, and ultimately overtly vulnerable”. This is in addition to the risk of animal attacks and injuries while maneuvering difficult landscape along the way to fetch water.
In some cases, lack of water costs women their mental health
A geo-spatial clustering study conducted in rural Uganda revealed that residing in a water insecurity hotspot is associated with 70% greater risk for probable depression among women, but not among men. The relatively higher proportion of women experiencing distress can be attributed to women’s inability to complete their roles within the home and community i.e. maintain household hygiene or provide water as a gesture of hospitality. In the local context, this leads to social shaming, worry and a negative self-concept:
“You may get visitors asking for drinking water, you will tell them you don’t have it and they will ask themselves what kind of life you lead if you do not even have drinking water” (GA Migori, Western Kenya)
In other contexts, women reported becoming frustrated when forced to wait for water in long queues, resulting in inter-personal conflict and violence. This is in addition to the risk of sexual violence as well as the stress associated with it. Finally, studies revealed that the mental burden of planning and organizing where, when and how to acquire water kept women awake at night, especially during droughts and dry seasons.
Living without water means lost opportunities
The economic consequences of women’s lack of access to a basic necessity such as water is understood as an example of structural violence. Simply put, the conditions that require women to walk for hours to secure water when they could be participating in economically rewarding activities are woven into the social, economic, and political fabric of societies. The same conditions create an inescapable poverty trap, hindering their upward social mobility through education or economic independence. Time spent on water collection is in fact time taken away from school hours. Evidence from Ghana and Tanzania shows that a 15-minute reduction in water collection time leads to a direct increase in girls’ school attendance from 8-12%. Thus, improved water access translates to better education and upward mobility for women and girls while the lack thereof hinders proper education and female employment.
For women, access to clean and safe water is the solution
A crushed water crisis will have millions of women reclaim their time, peace of mind, physical safety and lost opportunities. Girls like Matilda can stay in school, complete their education and get ahead in life while moms like Margaret can lay back and just be hands on present moms. All we need to do is work together towards making safe water a reality for women and girls around the world. We, at Project Maji, are doing exactly that, and we Invite you to join us in building a water-secure lifeworld for women and girls In the world's most remote rural communities.