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The pain of carrying water

Virginia Roaf, SWA Senior Advisor
25 Oct 2019

Those of us living and working in the North are familiar with the images of incredibly elegant, beautifully dressed women carrying water on their heads – in buckets, in calabashes, in bowls, walking through the desert, or along a mountain path, perhaps with a small child alongside, also carrying her own, smaller pot of water – as a way of ‘selling’ the need for better water, and a donation to a charity promising water for better health, for a better future. The images, while showing hardship and a different way of life, cannot show the reality of what that life is like, the impact of having to carry 20 litres water, often long distances each day. Moreover, according to a new report carrying water is causing damage in every aspect of those women’s lives.

The research shows unequivocally the cost on women’s health of having to collect water outside the home. This is not news, the evidence is there on many aspects of women’s lives, but this research also highlights the physical damage. The research highlights that collecting water not only costs women and girls time – leading to missed school and work opportunities – but also causes spinal and neck strain leading to chronic pain. For girls, this is particularly dangerous, as their bodies are still developing. For a long time, WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme has been providing us with this critical information that women are carrying the burden of carrying water, and this research highlights further reasons why that is so damaging, reminding us of the importance of putting women’s health, and women’s lives at the front and centre of all considerations of water and sanitation services.

This year the United Nations in its promotion of the Sustainable Development Goals has focussed on leaving no-one behind, but we need to go further and acknowledge the human rights violations that occur every day due to poor access to water and sanitation. The lack of these services is predominantly a gendered issue, requiring a gendered solution. This is not just for reasons of better health, it is closely linked to economic and social development, - supporting women going to work, managing business, getting girls to school. Women are doing what they must to get access to water, but they are often struggling alone. It’s crucial to hear their voices, to create the opportunity to find solutions that answer their needs. Women with disabilities, or living in remote areas, and those with a lower social status will need even more support to be heard and have the right solutions identified.

One of the main objectives of Sanitation and Water for All is to promote multi-stakeholder dialogues and forums, not just with the water and sanitation ministry but also those responsible for health, economic development, the ministries of finance, with civil society and the private sector. To drive real progress in the sector, we have to be prepared to take the time to listen and place value on the voices of people who have been disenfranchised. We must do a lot more to bring the voices of women who are carrying water, and then transform this into action – we need to reconsider how budgets are allocated or prioritized, highlighting the costs to society of allowing women and girls to cause such damage to their bodies for such an essential service.

Access to water and sanitation services are human rights. The SDGs prioritize equality for women and girls. We have a duty to hold governments and other development actors to account for ensuring that these are achieved.