Water – A Woman’s Burden and Opportunity by Gemma Bulos

Water – A Woman’s Burden and Opportunity by Gemma Bulos,   Director of Global Women’s Water Initiative

It is just breaking dawn, and a mother and daughter are gathering their empty jericans (3 to 5-gallon water containers) to begin their daily search for water. At nearly eight pounds per gallon, a jerican is far too heavy to carry enough water home to accomplish their daily chores.  So they also carry their pots and dishes and soiled clothing to wash and bathe at the water source. When they arrive at the river there are many other women gathered. After spending hours by the water washing and drying clothes, cleaning dirty dishes, themselves and their children, they begin the long journey home, this time carrying 5 gallons, nearly 44 lbs of water on their heads and backs. The path is rough and uneven and the sun is beating heavily on their shoulders. They relieve themselves in an open field because there are no toilets, putting them at risk of violent attacks. They have just enough water to cook and provide drinking water for their family maybe for a few days. And since this water is from a river and is open to all the elements, it is very likely that their water is contaminated.

It’s difficult to imagine that the amount of water that some families have available is less  than 2 of our western toilet flushes. Can you imagine the opportunities lost for women and girls when their day is spent fetching water, doing water related chores, avoiding violent attacks when they must relieve themselves, and drinking and serving their family contaminated water?

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has said: “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights“.  Yet only 1% of the world’s water is fresh and must be shared among 7 billion people, not to mention with all life on the planet. Pollution, population growth, privatization, diversion and environmental degradation have stressed the availability and health of this life-giving resource, intensified poverty and compromised human rights worldwide.

Currently, 1 in 8 people do not have access to fresh water (fresh doesn’t mean it’s safe). Access is defined as 5 gallons of water per person per day and less than 1km from the water source. 1 in 3 people do not have access to proper sanitation facilities.

Lack of access to water and sanitation and hygiene facilities affect women the most profoundly. Worldwide, it is estimated that on a single day, women can spend over 200 billion collective hours fetching water and over half a billion women are without safe water. 1 in 10 girls drop out of school or miss one week per month when they start menstruating because of the lack of toilets.

“The exclusion of women from the planning of water supply and sanitation schemes is a major cause of their high rate of failure” United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Almost all traditional water-related chores are undertaken by women – washing, cooking, cleaning, etc. Additionally, women are responsible for the health of the household. When a family member becomes sick, the woman is responsible for taking care of them, often adding financial stress if she must miss out on any income-generating opportunities not to mention having to buy medicines or pay for health services.

Despite women’s daily interaction with water on a much deeper level than other community members, they have little input in community decision-making around the provision of clean water and sanitation strategies. Women know the locations of all the available and seasonable water sources as well as which is more safe. Also, because they have more interaction with water than others, proper hygiene practices are crucial to maintain family health. If a mother is cooking, cleaning and providing drinking water and not practicing good hygiene, the whole family is at risk.

The United Nations Development Program estimates that for every $1 invested in water and sanitation solutions there is a return of up to $8 in increased productivity. Equipping women with the tools, skills and ‘appropriate’ technologies to provide clean water and sanitation solutions is one major step in improving family health and creating opportunities for women and girls to have livelihoods and get an education. “Appropriate’ technologies meet the following criteria: durable, affordable, made out of local resources, can be repaired and maintained by locals and it is accepted by the community.

In addition, statistics show women outnumber male entrepreneurs in developing economies because they face higher barriers to entry in the formal labour market, and have to resort to entrepreneurship as a way out of poverty. Building women’s capacity to construct clean water and sanitation technologies, providing women with leadership and business skills to leverage these solutions, creating micro-businesses offering professional water services and products – all of this is just plain business sense!

With the growing concerns of a world plagued with social inequities and environmental degradation, it is crucial for future sustainability that we seek guidance and leadership from our natural caretakers: Women. When women have the support and resources to implement simple solutions to address the environmental conditions that create gender inequity, they have the power to transform their burdens into opportunities.

Gemma Bulos is an award-winning social entrepreneur and musician. She is the Director of the Global Women’s Water Initiative and the Founding Director of A Single Drop for Safe Water in the Philippines, developing innovative programming that creates income-generating community-based water service organizations. For this innovation, Gemma received national and international social entrepreneur awards from Echoing Green (International, 2007), Ernst Young (Philippines 2009, Schwab Foundation (Asia 2010), and others.  In 2011, she was recognized as one of the Most Influential Thought Leaders and Innovative Filipinas in the United States. Gemma is also an internationally renowned singer most well know for building The Million Voice Choir to sing her song “WE RISE”, a global peace mission to unite people around water through song. The Global Women’s Water Initiative is a partnership between Women’s Earth Alliance and Crabgrass. GWWI provides training for grassroots women and groups to implement water-related strategies so they can improve their communities’ health, self-reliance, and resilience to climate change.