Without water or toilets there is still a long way to go for gender equity on International Women’s Day

4 min read
Lady and girls walking with water
Image: WaterAid/Tom Greenwood

One in three women and girls around the world do not have a decent toilet of their own, and one in nine do not have clean water close to home. This International Women’s Day on 8 March 2018 is a time to highlight the impact a lack of clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene has on women and girls unlocking their potential.

While there is a growing voice for women’s rights in the MeToo movement and global calls for pay equity, in the developing world women and girls spend hours each day collecting water and finding somewhere to go to the toilet.

“Globally, women and girls bear the burden of walking long distances every day to collect water for their families, babies die as a result of mothers giving birth in unhygienic health care facilities and girls miss and drop out of school because there are no appropriate menstrual hygiene services. Access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene frees women’s time and improves health, enabling them to pursue a career, take up leadership roles in their community, to get an education, and take steps out of poverty,” said WaterAid Australia Chief Executive Rosie Wheen.

The effects of a lack of clean water and decent toilets are felt most by women and girls. This is the daily reality of life for many women in developing countries:

Around the world women spend hours every day walking to collect water from streams and creeks which is often dirty and unsafe to drink. It is exhausting work and means they have less time for productive activities and to spend with their family. 844 million people in the world do not have access to clean water. 

After walking hours to collect often dirty water, women have to boil and strain the water in an attempt to make it clean for their family to drink. The smoke can be dangerous and lead to respiratory problems and the water can still be dirty. Sometimes children are so thirsty there is no time to boil the water.

Drinking dirty water, having nowhere hygienic to go to the loo and lack of hygiene practices means children are often sick with illnesses such as diarrhoea, cholera, stunting, pneumonia and worms. Around 289,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation. That’s almost 800 children a day.

Many women and girls don’t have a toilet in their house and have to go to the toilet in the bushes. They have no choice but to face the indignity of going to the loo in the open, where they are exposed to disease and vulnerable to harassment and even attack. 2.3 billion people don’t have access to adequate sanitation.

The lack of toilets and hygiene facilities in schools is a major reason for young girls dropping out of school when they reach puberty. This curtails their education and the opportunity to take the first essential steps out of poverty. Many young women in developing countries don’t complete school and almost 500 million adult women are illiterate, accounting for almost two thirds of the world’s illiterate population.

“While most Australians have running water and a toilet in their house, countries in the Pacific and Asia suffer some of the worst water and sanitation coverage rates in the world. Many communities in our close neighbours of Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea and Cambodia don’t have access to taps for clean drinking water, decent toilets or good hygiene. Without these basic services, hundreds of children die needlessly from diarrhoea every day, people are unwell, girls drop out of school, women waste hours collecting water limiting their income, and communities remain trapped in a cycle of poverty and disease,” said Ms Wheen.

In Papua New Guinea 63% of people are without clean water and 81% are without basic sanitation, in Timor-Leste 30% are without clean water and 56% without basic sanitation and in Cambodia 25% without are clean water and 51% are without basic sanitation.