Water, toilets, hygiene... and women's empowerment

3 min read
WaterAid/Basile Ouedraogo

Water, toilets and hygiene. What have these got to do with women's empowerment? 

Well, quite a lot. 

Let's look at water. If all of the time that women and girls spend collecting water each day were added together, it would come to 200 million hours. So that's walking often hefty distances to a water source, scooping water from ponds, sand banks, rivers or deep holes and carrying it home on their heads, backs or pedalling it on a bike. You could say that water is a woman's job.

Across the world, 1 in 3 women don't have a decent toilet at home. Which means that billions of women have to go to the toilet in the open, with no privacy, without a place to clean up and dispose of period products and putting them at risk of harassment or attack. It’s no place for a woman.

Periods – they're a woman's issue, right? Many women have to deal with taboos around this monthly bodily function, which in some cultures extend beyond embarrassment into social exclusion and silence. And because 3 in 10 schools worldwide don't have clean water and 1 in 3 don't have toilets, when students are on their period, they often stay at home and miss out on an education altogether. 

Water, toilets and hygiene – they're a woman's problem, that's for sure. But when women are part of the solution, that's when progress can really happen.

The water pump mechanic

Pump mechanic Dalia Soda at one of the boreholes she maintains in the village of Nzeremu, Salima District, Malawi, June 2016.
Pump mechanic Dalia at one of the boreholes she maintains in the village of Nzeremu, Malawi
WaterAid/Alexia Webster

Dalia is a water pump mechanic in Salima district, Malawi. She's one of only three women mechanics out of a group of 28 working in her area. "The men think of me as one of the best mechanics. But to me I take it like it’s something I need to do just to help – I’m just like any other woman." Dalia's work means that the women in Salima district have clean water close to home. And because she can fix water pumps when they break, it's a sustainable development. 

The sanitation worker

Gelani Dhimma is a mother of one. Her husband and she are among of the 15 young men and women for whom WaterAid has created job opportunities through the Sani(tation) Centre, where they will not only administer the toilet and showers but also cook and sell food using the biogas produced. Babich, Liben Jawi, West Shewa, Oromia, Ethiopia, December 2017.
Gelani outside the Sanitation centre where she works. "I have a four-month-old son. I will buy him new clothes from my first salary.”
WaterAid/Behailu Shiferaw

Gelani works in a sanitation centre, set up by WaterAid in Babich Town, Ethiopia. She helps maintain the showers and toilets in this innovative sanitation project, which also sells pre-fabricated toilet building materials to the local community. Gelani's job means a steady wage for her, and clean toilets for the residents of her home town. But it’s more than this. "It means I am going to be an independent woman. It means I am not going to be dependent on my husband. I will support my family, my country and myself. That is what this job means to me."

The student activist

Kishwar Ijaz, 15, during a hygiene session in Government Girls High School Sinawan in the village of Sinawan, District Muzaffargarh, Province Punjab, Pakistan, November 2016

Kishwar is part of a hygiene club in her school in Muzaffargarh district, Pakistan. “There are customs that we follow around menstruation. For example, we mustn’t touch pickles because it’ll make them inedible. We learnt in school to use cloth pads and to eat normal food and continue with our daily routines as normal." Kishwar is a budding activist and has taken what she's learnt home with her too. "I tell the women in the village about what I’ve learnt in school about menstrual hygiene. Some women use no sanitary items at all when menstruating, so we are teaching them how to manage their periods safely.” 

This International Women's Day, we're celebrating the women that are improving the lives of those around them by providing clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene. By finding practical solutions to what could feel like insurmountable problems, they're making progress not just for other women, but for us all. And that is women's empowerment.