World Water Day: Celebrating Women’s Rights

March 19, 2013

A Malian girl carries a water can she just partially filled at a water pump in northern Mali's city of Gao (Photo credit should read Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images).
A Malian girl carries a water can she just partially filled at a water pump in northern Mali’s city of Gao (Photo credit should read Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images).

Water is a women’s issue. World Water Day, March 22, is Women’s Rights Day.

As basic economic, social and cultural rights, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are a government’s responsibility. As a women’s rights issue, WASH is a concern for us all.

There is a great deal of evidence backing this up.

Every year, 40 billion working hours are lost to water collection worldwide, mostly by women and girls. This violates their rights to employment and education by taking up time and energy; and their rights to safety and dignity by exposing them to injury, animal attack, and physical and sexual violence. Since the water they collect is usually unsafe (if it were safe, chances are they wouldn’t have to walk far to get it, because a tap would be available near home), it violates their right to health, exposing them to Neglected Tropical Diseases, diarrhea, even uterine prolapse from carrying heavy loads.

Lack of sanitation and safe drinking water violates the right to safe and adequate housing. Combined with poor hygiene, it makes people sick because they ingest fecal matter without even knowing it, creates breeding grounds for insects carrying diseases like trachoma, and contaminates water sources; water-borne illnesses impact children most, keeping more kids from school and causing trauma for the many parents whose children don’t survive these diseases, up to 2,000 each day.

Emerging research emphasizes that lack of safe water, sanitation and hygiene impacts maternal health.  One estimate is that 4% of all maternal mortality can be linked to poor WASH. This means water, sanitation and hygiene are also part of our new My Body, My Rights! Campaign, because dying in childbirth from preventable causes is just as egregious a human rights violation as not being able to control whether and when you get pregnant.

In 2005, the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act required the U.S. government to prioritize WASH investments for the world’s poorest people, of course including women and girls. This law recognized that water, sanitation and hygiene link to many foreign policy goals, many global health and development needs and opportunities. In other words, it recognized that these are basic human rights.

From educational access and quality, to nutrition, health, and maternal and newborn survival, to poverty reduction, WASH is a lynchpin. But only when the U.S. government and every other government in the world recognizes its obligations to protect the human right to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene will its full benefits be felt. Statistics and rhetoric don’t quite do the trick.

This World Water Day, we are focused on a simple adage: water is a women’s issue. We invite you to help ensure that women are no longer left out of the water conversation, and that water and sanitation become central to women’s rights.

To start, follow #WorldWaterDay discussions on Twitter and contribute your own thoughts on water and women’s rights. Or, tell Secretary Kerry that the rights to water, sanitation and hygiene must be protected as part of a comprehensive approach to women’s health rights. Finally, you could just tell a friend you’re celebrating World Water Day. After all, water has something for everyone.