Author: Sara Ahrari, Programme Manager at Simavi.
March marks two significant internationally celebrated days for those of us working in the sector. On 8th March we celebrate International Women’s Day #IWD and on 21st March we cherish the World Water Day #WWD. So, it would be good to reflect once again on how exactly WASH is critical to the health and empowerment of women and girls throughout their life.
Let us imagine that you are a girl born to a economically challenged family in a village in the so called developing world where you and your family do not have access to safe water and sanitation.
If you are lucky enough to survive the first 5 years of your life and not die from diarrhoea or other water-borne diseases, the chances are very high that you are already walking a few hours per day to fetch water for your family and you are taking care of your younger siblings.
Then when the time comes for you to go to school, if your family does not have to prioritise your brothers’ education to yours, and if there is a school to attend, you may actually enrol at one. The chances are still very high that you have to walk a good half an hour to fetch water before going to school and answer the call of nature in the open since your school does not have any (functional) toilet. You probably get harassed and experience gender based violence during these visits.
Then sometimes when you are between 9 to 12 years old, one day you feel a lot of pain in your lower tummy and suddenly feel that you have wet yourselves. Embarrassed to death, when you finally can find a private corner, you notice the blood in your underwear and think you are going to die. Terrified you tell your older sister or friend and if you can overcome the shame, maybe you tell even your mother, only to learn that although you will not die, you will be going through this pain and embarrassment every month for what seems to be the rest of your life. You will be given a cloth or two, to manage your period. Of course, finding water to wash them and a private place to properly dry them would still be a challenge. You miss school either because you have a lot of pain, which you don’t know how to manage, or you or your family don’t want to risk getting embarrassed because of the blood on your clothes, or simply because there is no toilet or water at school where you can change your cloth or pads! Even in some countries, you might also end up staying in a shed during your period since you will be considered unclean!
Getting your period, is also considered start of your womanhood, and your family might start thinking that it is about time to marry you off, either to reduce the costs or to avoid that you start misbehaving or simply because that’s how it works. Of course you would not get any education about your reproductive system, nor for instance how to avoid unwanted pregnancies. If you are not married off, you will be told to avoid the boys!
By the time that you are 15 years old, the chances are very high that you are pregnant. If you are married and pregnant, you need the permission and money from your husband or his family to go for your check-ups. Mind you, you probably need to bring your own water in a bucket to the health centre, which you have to walk quite a distance to get to. And mind you, when you are pregnant, you need to use the washroom more often, but of course there is no toilet in public places or even health centres. By the way, your family might think that these visits don’t worth the trouble and you are better off with a traditional birth attendant, who usually does not have any hygienic place to do the check-ups nor have water to wash her hands with, even when you are delivering your baby!
And, if you are not married and pregnant, you can forget about going to the health center since the staff will not even talk to you. You probably end up with a traditional birth attendant who wouldn’t mind performing illegal abortion, and again have not washed her hands, when she puts them inside you or uses other terrifying unclean objects to perform an abortion. As you can guess, the chances that you actually survive this one, is very low.
Anyway, throughout your reproductive age, you probably would be pregnant pretty much every year. Of course you would not be able to get the rest or support you need during this time and have to still do most of the unpaid work around the house, without anyone recognising or appreciating it.
You may at some point in life also start doing some paid work to support your family. However, whenever someone at household gets sick or you have your period, you probably have to miss going to work and thereby your income. Talking about income, you are the one who would prioritise investing it in sanitation, whereas for your husband it comes as his 8th or 9th priority, but unfortunately it is often not you who decides what happens with your income, so still no toilet for your family.
When you lose your husband or your father, you probably will not inherit anything from them and all the assets would go to male member of your family. Often if you don’t have sons, or even when you do have them, this means that you need to rely on their mercy for food and shelter.
All these situations can get worse if you are living with any type of disability, or HIV/AIDS, or in places where there is too much or too little water, or if you are from a minority or displaced group.
Yet, generation after generation you have been the source of inspiration and driver of change within your family, community and throughout the world and your resilience and agency has brought the mankind where we are today.
And of course, while WASH programmes alone cannot tackle underlying causes of the barriers women and girls face through their life cycle, by fulfilling women and girls basic needs for access to water and sanitation, they can be the first step in the right direction. On the other hand, WASH programmes when designed and implemented in a gender responsive and transformative way can provide the opportunity to move beyond this and also address women and girls’ strategic needs, such as participation in decision-making processes within their family and communities and thereby contributing to their physical, political, socio-cultural and economic empowerment.
The article is inspired by a panel discussion with Sara Ahrari convened by WaterAid Canada, UNICEF and RESULTS Canada during International Development Week 2019 in Ottawa.