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Coinciding with International Women’s Day, this post reflects on and celebrates the role of women in the WASH crisis through photos. It is authored by Libby Plumb, senior communications advisor for WaterAid in America. She has worked for WaterAid for 13 years, undertaking a variety of roles for the UK and US offices and visiting many of WaterAid’s country programs over this time. Libby has a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford.

Reflecting on International Women’s Day today, March 8th, prompts us to ask: to what extent is the global water and sanitation crisis a women’s issue? Women bear the brunt of water collection, suffer the most from lack of sanitation access and the resulting indignities, and, as primary caregivers, are impacted the most when children fall sick with water-related diseases. Fully involving women in community water and sanitation programs, as WaterAid does, ensures the programs meet their needs. It also helps equip women with the skills and confidence they need to tackle other development challenges in their communities.

Credit: WaterAid / Eva-Lotta Jansson

Credit: WaterAid / Eva-Lotta Jansson

The indignity of lacking somewhere private to go to the bathroom is particularly felt by women. In many cultures women have to wait until it is dark to relieve themselves, causing discomfort and sometimes illness. It can also expose women to the risk of both sexual harassment and animal attacks. In Sandimhia Renato’s village in Mozambique, women have to cross an unstable bridge to go to the toilet. Some have drowned crossing in the dark or at high tide.

Credit: WaterAid / Abir Abdullah

Credit: WaterAid / Abir Abdullah

The world’s poorest communities are generally male-dominated so extra effort has to be taken to ensure women are equally included in all stages of water and sanitation programs, including planning, construction, and decision-making. A lack of education for women in developing countries means that very few women can be decision-makers, yet enabling women’s voices to be heard is a crucial step in development. Above, women are pictured making latrine slabs for a WaterAid sanitation program in Bangladesh.

Credit: WaterAid / Jon Spaull

Credit: WaterAid / Jon Spaull

WaterAid helps to elevate women’s status in society by giving them positions of responsibility in the water committees established to manage the new water supplies. Zeinabu Kayisi, chairperson of a village water committee in the Salima District of Malawi, told us: “Being able to maintain the pump myself makes me feel independent and strong!’’

WaterAid / Libby Plumb

Credit: WaterAid / Libby Plumb

WaterAid often chooses women to become hygiene educators. Zubeyda Gudeta, pictured above helping women wash their hands before eating at a wedding reception, works as a hygiene promoter for WaterAid in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. She told us: “There has been a great change since the WaterAid project. Before this, some people didn’t wash their things like food containers. Now they wash their pots and plates three times. Now, people are healthier in this area than in other areas.”

WaterAid / Caroline Irby

Credit: WaterAid / Caroline Irby

A safe water source makes everyday household tasks much easier. More importantly, mothers and expectant mothers, like Sila Adeke from the Katakwi District of Uganda, no longer fear for the health of their children. “The borehole is much closer so I can fetch more water than before. Washing clothes is so easy now and I can use a whole jerry can for washing plates. The rate of illness is much lower. With this new source my child will grow up healthy and I am not concerned that it will grow sick.”

Credit: WaterAid / Jon Spaull

Credit: WaterAid / Jon Spaull

The privacy that comes with safe, clean bathrooms is especially important for women with disabilities for whom leaving the house is more challenging. Suffering from impaired vision, Rukhmani Devi from India is pleased her family now has a private latrine: “When I had my eye operation [for cataracts], I realized just how convenient having a latrine is, as before I would have had to go to the fields. Life is good now, as before people would be able to see us using the fields and we weren’t able to relax—instead we were always alert and worried.”

Credit: WaterAid / Suzanne Porter

Credit: WaterAid / Susan Porter

When women are freed from having to spend hours each day collecting water, they have more time available for other activities that can help them to escape poverty. Mary Chukle from Takkas in Nigeria credits the new water supply with enabling her to open a business: “Before we got the well, we had to trek down to the river with the children and it took up to two hours. Because of the time I save now from getting water the old way, I was able to work more and apply for a loan to buy a small village shop which I now run.”

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