WaterAid unveils photo series highlighting the hidden impacts of dirty water on women’s hair and wellbeing, and the life-changing effect of getting clean water

on
27 February 2024
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UK survey reveals value we place on our hair, with almost 9 in 10 women* saying the appearance of their hair impacts self-esteem

Download PhotosA striking new photo series from international not-for-profit WaterAid reveals how sustained exposure to dirty water and poor hygiene can affect women’s hair and, in turn, their self-esteem - from hair loss caused by contaminated water or carrying jerry cans on their heads, to period taboos preventing women from washing their hair while menstruating.

Clean water can transform people’s health, hair and livelihoods, and the gallery also features Gifty who owns The Lord is My Shepherd hair salon in Ghana, which thrived and brought women in her community together once she got clean water in her workplace and home.

The importance of how we feel about our hair also runs deep for women in the UK. According to a new survey, commissioned by WaterAid, a staggering 87% of *British women aged 18-64 say the appearance of their hair impacts their self-esteem.  

Over half of all those surveyed said having a bad hair day makes them feel more self-conscious (58%) and less confident (53%), while nearly one in five (19%) say a bad hair day makes them feel more stressed.

Shockingly, well over a third (38%) of women polled had experienced hair loss, with one respondent saying: 

“Losing my hair has been a challenging experience, impacting my sense of self-esteem and attractiveness. The noticeable change has led to feelings of insecurity and self-consciousness, affecting my overall confidence.”

From post-partum hair loss to chemotherapy, the reasons women experience hair loss are complex. WaterAid has discovered that around the world, women are experiencing hair loss and other impacts to the scalp and skin – at least in part - due to something a little more unexpected: dirty or contaminated water.  

In the southwestern region of Satkhira in Bangladesh, women say they are losing their hair because they wash in water contaminated by saline and other pollutants.  

Jhorna, 23, a mother of two, says:  

“We use pond water for showers. The water is not good but there is no alternative. My hair is falling out every day. Every time I brush my hair, I get almost a handful. Sometimes it breaks too. I now have a lot less hair than I used to. I also get blisters and dry skin. I feel very sad about losing my hair. I'm scared that I won’t have any eventually.”

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Shyamoli, 55, works as a fish and rice farmer and is also a local doula. She says:

“I think because of the weather changes and extreme heat, water salinity and other changes we have experienced over the years, more hair is falling from our heads. Every day I am getting lots of hair falling out, almost a handful. As a woman, hair is everything to us, so whenever I lose my hair, I feel insecure about going bald.”    

Anindita Hridita, Programme Lead on Climate Resilience at WaterAid Bangladesh, says:

“Women in the Satkhira region are living without the basics of clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene, and the climate crisis is making it worse. This leaves them walking long, back-breaking distances to collect drinking water for their families, bathing in ponds contaminated with saline and other pollutants, and using flimsy pit latrines that are unsafe, dirty and get washed away in powerful downpours. They say continued exposure to contaminated water sources is not only causing dangerous waterborne diseases, but also robbing them of their hair – an added layer of injustice in an already dire situation.”

Women in Karamoja in northeastern Uganda complain that parasites and lice are ‘rampant’ and living in drought conditions without clean water close by makes it difficult to get rid of the infestation. Carrying jerrycans of water on their heads for up to two hours a day is also causing such severe rubbing on the scalp that their hair is breaking and being worn away.  

Lina, 30, a housewife and small-scale farmer says:  

“My hair keeps breaking because of my daily household chores, which involve carrying heavy water containers and firewood. The hair in the middle of my head, where I carry heavy loads, is always shorter or stunted.  I get stressed seeing my hair breaking because every Karamojong woman desires to have her hair grow long. When I have clean and well-plaited hair, I feel comfortable and confident because people give me respect.”

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Due to prevailing taboos surrounding menstruation, 15-year-old Taposhi from Bangladesh, was forced to spend her first period in a mud hut and was prevented from changing her clothes or combing her hair, which left her feeling like she looked like ‘a mad person’. She said:

“On the first day of my first menstrual cycle everything changed for me. I was separated from everyone in my family. This was the first time I slept alone for four nights in a deserted mud hut. I was surprised and heartbroken. My sister told me during periods, girls should not comb, or take shower in pond, and need to eat rice with salt. Then I asked why do I need to do this? She said it is the rule here.”

When clean water arrives, the impacts are transformative. Accra-based photographer, Sianeh Kpukuyou visited Gifty to document her story. For, Gifty, 40, owner of The Lord is My Shepherd hair salon in the Bolgalatanga region of north-east region of Ghana, the arrival of clean water to her workplace and home, has enabled her business – and her clients – to thrive. She says:  

“Clean water is my life. Without it, my business will not survive because from morning to evening, everything I do here involves the use of water. Water is very crucial to my business.  

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Hairdressing has also enabled Gifty to build strong relationships with her clients. She explains:  

“My sister-in-law comes here regularly and sometimes when I have many clients, she helps me with the hairstyles she is familiar with. As we do the hairstyles, we chit chat and it makes our friendship stronger. If the client and I have a long-standing relationship, we also joke around and laugh. At other times, we confide in each other, discuss our family issues, and advise each other.” 

The sense of community and kinship, Gifty has built with her clients is reflected how they feel coming to her salon. Rose, 28, has been visiting Gifty’s salon for four years and reflects:  

“When I tried her services for the first time, I liked what she did with my hair and we became friends ever since. She’s very good, especially with the rasta and corn roll hairstyles. And she treats people so well.  I have even picked up some skills of hairstyling from her, so sometimes I help her out with some of the clients. I always feel happy after leaving this place.”  

One in ten people across the world have no clean water close to home, affecting people’s health, education and livelihoods. Women bear the brunt of this injustice, with water collection, household chores and caring for family typically falling to them. But continued exposure to dirty and contaminated water is also impacting women’s skin and hair impacting their well-being, identity and sense of self-worth.  

Support WaterAid’s Water Means Life appeal this winter to help provide weather-proof taps and toilets to communities in Bangladesh and across the world, so they can build a better future. 

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Download photosFor more information, please contact: [email protected] or [email protected]. Or call our press line on 020 7793 4537, or email pressoffice@wateraid.

Notes to Editors:

OnePoll conducted a survey on behalf of WaterAid from 19th to 25th January 2024. Sample size was 2000 UK women aged 18 to 64. Results are included in the link at the top of the press release. 

WaterAid is an international not-for-profit determined to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. We work alongside communities in 22 countries to secure these three essentials that transform people’s lives. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 28 million people with clean water and nearly 29 million people with decent toilets.  

For more information, visit our website wateraid.org/uk, follow us on Twitter @WaterAidUK@WaterAid or @WaterAidPress, or find us on FacebookLinkedIn or Instagram.

  • 703 million people in the world – almost one in ten – don’t have clean water close to home.
  • 2.2 billion people in the world – more than one in four – don’t have safe water.
  • Almost 2 billion people in the world – one in four – lack soap and/or water to wash their hands at home, if they have a place at all.   
  • 1.5 billion people in the world – almost one in five – don’t have a decent toilet of their own.
  • 570 million people in the world – 1 in 14 – have a decent toilet but have to share it with people outside their family. This compromises the privacy, dignity and safety of women and girls.
  • Almost 400,000 children under five die every year due to diseases caused by unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene. That's more than 1000 children a day, or almost one child every one and a half minutes.  
  • Investing in safely managed water, sanitation and hygiene services provides up to 21 times more value than it costs.

[1] WHO/UNICEF (2023). Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000-2022: special focus on gender. Available at: washdata.org/reports/jmp-2023-wash-households-launch (accessed 11 Jul 2023).    

[2] WHO (2023). Burden of disease attributable to unsafe drinking-water, sanitation and hygiene: 2019 update. Available at: who.int/publications/i/item/9789240075610 (accessed 24 Jul 2023).  

[3] WaterAid (2021). Mission-critical: Invest in water, sanitation and hygiene for a healthy and green economic recovery. Available at: washmatters.wateraid.org/publications/mission-critical-invest-water-sanitation-hygiene-healthy-green-recovery (accessed 1 Nov 2023).