Nearly 2.1 billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water in their homes. Across the globe, women and girls bear the consequences of this lack of clean water more acutely than men do.
On March 21, in celebration of International Women’s Day, Women’s History Month, and World Water Day, a score of powerful innovators came together at the “Call to Action: Supporting Women through Water” event to discuss and share their passion for the important topics surrounding women and water. The U.S. Department of State hosted this event in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Water Partnership, the Aspen Institute, Global Water 2020, and the Global Water Challenge.
World Water Day, celebrated every March 22, underscores the importance of clean, fresh water to all living beings. This year, we commemorated the day by raising awareness about the link between women’s empowerment and water and highlighted how ready access to safe water and sanitation can significantly advance the quality of life for women and girls.
Marcia Bernicat, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, launched the busy day of speeches and panels in an auditorium full of advocates, diplomats, development practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and researchers.
“Greater recognition is coming to the unique challenges women and girls face; and to their roles as agents of change,” she said.
In many countries, the burden of collecting water on a daily basis often falls squarely on women. Globally, women and girls spend some 200 million hours every day collecting water and 97 billion hours each year looking for a place to relieve themselves, taking precious time away from opportunities for paid work and education.
“If you want to do anything about water, you need to look at sustainability maintenance and you need to train women,” said Jennifer Sara, the Senior Director of the World Bank’s Global Water Practice. She emphasized the importance of getting women into the water sector and decision-making roles.
Access to a safe, reliable water supply better enables women to pursue an education, generate an income, and become leaders in their communities. Growing evidence also shows that improving water quality, sanitation, and hygiene (collectively called “WASH”) in healthcare facilities can also improve maternal and infant health.
“When women lack decision-making authority in their homes or communities, they cannot participate in meeting their own water, sanitation, and hygiene needs,” said Laura Schultz, the Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Economic Growth, Education and Environment at USAID, in her keynote remarks. USAID and its interagency partners are helping to change that dynamic by bringing more women into the water and sanitation sector. “This serves two purposes: Building a professional workforce with the skills to manage and maintain systems and therefore expand services over time; and offering women the opportunity to generate income when they might have otherwise been collecting water,” Schulz explained. She concluded with this call to action: “The more women and girls can engage in a society, the stronger the society will be.”
Many of the featured speakers shared their own personal experiences with these issues. Mina Guli, founder of the NGO Thirst, described encounters with women in India “who wait every day for the trucks to turn up with water because their wells have run dry.”
“The thing that stood out to me,” she said in her remarks, “was a group of women who told me, ‘We used to have jobs. We used to fish. Now we have nothing. Our daughters have nothing. We can no longer generate enough income to send our daughters to school.’”
Throughout the event, speakers echoed a call for a global effort to resolve the water crisis, which was eloquently reiterated by NFL player and NGO Waterboys Founder Chris Long: “I want to encourage all of you to get in the game. The problem is solvable if we work together.”
I want to encourage all of you to get in the game. The problem is solvable if we work together. — NFL player and Waterboys Founder Chris Long @JOEL9ONE @WaterboysORG #WomenandWater #WWD2019 pic.twitter.com/o2tgbhJztH— StateDeptOES (@StateDeptOES) March 21, 2019
For more information on the event, check out our Twitter feed here.
About the Author: Caitlin Hawes serves in the Bureau of Ocean and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.