Celebrating the remarkable achievements of women and girls

5 min read
Rosie Wheen
Image: © James Grant Photography

On International Women’s Day WaterAid Australia Chief Executive Rosie Wheen made a presentation at a Water Services Association of Australia event in celebration of the day. Here is an edited transcript of her speech.

Today is an opportunity to be part of change. Today is a day where around the world we are celebrating the remarkable and the everyday achievements of women and girls.

Whilst we have come a long way…the World Economic Forum predicts the gender gap won't close entirely until 2186 – that just is not good enough. We need to be bold and we need change way sooner than that – don’t we?

The theme for International Women’s Day 2017 is “Be Bold for Change”; and is calling on people to take action that can truly drive the greatest change for gender equality.

When women are able to participate in politics and the economy, communities and countries can reach their potential.

The work that WaterAid does is vital in promoting the rights of women and girls (in all their rich diversity) to access water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). We know that there are women that face layers of discrimination and are marginalised due to their ethnicity, sexual orientation, where they live, what job they have or because they have a disability.

  • WASH unlocks education – when there is water and sanitation at schools, girls are more likely to stay in school especially when they have their periods.
  • WASH unlocks key aspects of women’s health particularly when they are pregnant or after giving birth. To all the women in the room can you imagine giving birth in a home or hospital without water or a toilet? Where the person attending you can’t wash their hands? Women who give birth where there is no water, toilets or anywhere to wash hands or equipment are at an increased risk of infection.
  • WASH unlocks dignity – when there are toilets girls and women no longer face the humiliation of having wee and poo in fields, pig pens, in rivers, in bushes feeling vulnerable to attack.
  • WASH unlocks opportunity – research across 45 developing countries found that 72% of daily household water-related tasks were done by women and girls. Imagine the opportunities that could be unlocked for those women and girls – for work, for their communities, for their families, for themselves – for some leisure time.

We need the proactive and deliberate participation of women in all their diversities and gender-discriminated peoples is essential, not as a token gesture but at the decision making table, at every step of the process.

Firstly (and it is always pointing out the obvious isn’t it?) it will ensure that women and girls needs are met. The Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation said “The lack of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities that meet women and girls’ needs can be largely attributed to the absence of women’s participation in decision-making and planning”

Secondly the process itself can be empowering for girls and women.

In Timor-Leste our partners have been working in a school in a small town called Same. In that school there was a disused toilet block, our partners (government, local Disabled People’s organization, Local NGO and local women’s organization) worked together with the parents, teachers and students from that school to rehabilitate those toilets. They also had sessions with the girls to discuss menstrual hygiene management (how the girls managed their periods when at school). The end result was a fantastic new toilet block decorated by the students, with simple ways for the girls to manage their period. One of the girls, Magdalena, told our team that she is so happy as now she can get an education and pursue her dreams. That’s pretty fantastic isn’t it?

Two of those girls were invited to Dili (the capital) to share their stories at a gathering for Menstrual Hygiene Day. These girls spoke to a large crowd of government officials, media, general public ABOUT THEIR PERIODS.

Now they are girls that are bold and making change!

Today on international women’s day, as we each think about what we can do to be bold for change we should all be what we say and do to change gender relationships and power. That might be a conversation at home, at your sporting club, in your work place, at your local community event. Sometimes just turning up makes a difference – I remember vividly the moment when I was appointed coach of my son’s soccer team (5 years old) and I was introduced to my assistant coach. He pulled me aside and said I would need to give him time to get used to coaching with me because he had never played soccer with a woman before and it was taking him a while to get used to the fact I was participating let alone the head coach of this team of 5 year old boys and girls. I hope in some small way that had some influence on both the boys and girls to challenge they ideas of what is a women’s role and what is a man’s role.

So we have a long way to go, today is day to celebrate achievements of women and girls. It is also a day to be bold for change so that all women and girls can achieve their full potential. Water, sanitation and hygiene play a role to unlocking opportunities and equality for so many women and girls around the world.