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International Women's Day 2016: empowering women and girls through WASH

Posted 8 Mar 2016 by Barbara Frost

Marking International Women's Day this year, WaterAid UK Chief Executive Barbara Frost examines the transformative impact WASH can have on the lives of schoolgirls.

In Lubunda primary school, Zambia, girls will be marking International Women’s Day in a way that should be unremarkable: by going to school.

Many of them can do so thanks to the recent addition of three basic necessities: a tap, a toilet and somewhere to wash hands with soap.

The school programme at Lubunda will change the course of their community, making families healthier and more able to earn a living.

Children no longer need to spend hours fetching water that is likely unsafe to drink, but instead can collect clean water from a tapstand. The students now understand and promote the importance of handwashing with soap, and are healthier and cleaner as a result.

Their school will improve as it becomes more attractive to teachers. Who wants to spend their professional day thinking about where and how they will go to the toilet, or unable to count on a refreshing glass of water after a long morning’s teaching?

And crucially for girls, once they reach puberty, having a safe, private toilet can mean the difference between going to school and dropping out of class for a week every month as they try to deal with their period in a discreet and dignified way.

Yet taps and toilets are still missing in too many schools and communities around the world.

Unicef monitoring tells us that one in three schools around the world still do not have safe, private toilets, increasing the likelihood that girls will drop out at puberty and entrenching the cycle of poverty. Cutting short the education of these future mothers is also likely to affect the next generation.


Alice Namonje, Menstrual Hygiene Coordinator talks to students at Lubunda Primary School, Zambia. Alice Namonje hosts a lesson on menstruation at Lubunda primary school.

"Absenteeism was high among girls. Some could stay away from school for a week, when they finish their periods,” said Alice Namonje, 38, a teacher at Lubunda primary school in Zambia, who now also teaches girls what to expect during menstruation and how to manage their periods as part of the new programme.

Many girls have ended up stopping school because sometimes they are stigmatised during their periods,” she said. However, private toilets and the ability to wash properly has made it easier for teenage girls to remain in school.

"Girls should not stay at home because of menstruating, We are breaking the silence, because menstruation is natural,” Ms Namonje said.

It is incomprehensible that as we celebrate all the achievements of women in this modern world, some 1.2 billion women and girls still live without adequate sanitation and 330 million women and girls still live without access to clean drinking water. Nearly all these women and girls live in the developing world.

Dirty water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene including lack of handwashing facilities with soap have a greater impact on women and girls’ health, safety and right to education. The lives of more that 150,000 girls below school age are claimed each year by diarrhoeal disease.

WaterAid’s research and experience has shown that when women are empowered to speak out on access to water and sanitation, communities – including homes, schools and medical facilities – are more likely to accommodate the needs of girls and women, improving everyone’s health, well-being and economic status.


Leah N'gandwe, her daughters and grandchild at Wachani Vllage, Lubunda, Zambia. Leah N'gandwe sits with two of her children and her grandson.

Leah N’gandwe, 37, knows this first-hand. The farmer from Wachani Village in Lubunda district said that in her own childhood, she walked daily more than an hour to an unprotected well that was the village’s main water source – a chore which interrupted her education.

“It was not easy to be educated, especially as a girl,” she said. “It was so burdensome that even while at school I was feeling the pressure of the obligation to draw water. Our parents always made the job of drawing water a responsibility of a girl.

“I could have been educated if we had water close to our home. Now, my children will have no excuse to fail at school. My children will never go through what I went through.”

This International Women’s Day, WaterAid is calling on governments to make safe, private toilets and handwashing facilities a priority in homes, schools and healthcare facilities, to address the inherent gender discrimination that comes when these services are lacking.

If we are to celebrate all that women have achieved, surely this basic right, essential for health and dignity, which has held so many women and girls back from their full potential cannot go ignored.

Read the stories of four women who have helped their communities survive without access to safe water > 

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