12/07/2012 04:34 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

2012 World Vision Strong Women Strong World Luncheon: A Woman's Right to Personal Hygiene

"We shall not finally defeat AIDS...or any other infectious disease that plagues the developing world until we have also won the battle for safe drinking water, sanitation and basic health care." -- Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General 1997-2006

In the developed world, easy and reliable access to clean water is taken for granted. I recently had a temporary brush with the loss of that privilege. The electricity to my Lower Manhattan apartment building was preemptively disconnected prior to Hurricane Sandy. No electricity in a sky rise building means no running water and no flushing toilets. My roughing it skills are minimal. I could buy water, but a toilet that would not flush was a deal breaker. I packed my bags and headed to a friend's home in Brooklyn.

As frustrating as the subsequent weeks were, I know that the inconveniences that I faced as a result of Sandy were minimal and temporary. Unfortunately, water insecurity is not a temporary problem for millions of women around the world.

The 8th Annual World Vision, Strong Women, Strong World Luncheon served to highlight access to safe water and sanitation as a women's
issue. New York City's Metropolitan Club provided an elegant background to the rousing event, held in recognition of World AIDS day. The event looked at lack of clean water and sanitation, as an underlying factor that exacerbates the link between HIV/AIDS and poverty for women in the developing world. Women and girls are often tasked with fetching water for their communities. The journey to retrieve water is usually not a quick jaunt and the chore exposes women to harassment and sexual assault. Access to clean water and sanitation has a profound impact upon the physical safety, health and dignity of women and girls at all economic levels internationally.

The event recognized several outstanding women. Dana Dornsife received the organization's International Hope Award for her philanthropic contributions to World Vision. Dana and her husband have committed $35 million over the next five year's to World Vision's water, sanitation and hygiene program. Major donors like the Dornsife's are crucial to the development community. However, Dornsife made it clear that her commitment to World Vision is stronger than the act of writing a check. "We think that it is very important to walk your talk... To be out in the field, to touch the people who are receiving the benefit of your good will."

The afternoons keynote speaker was Melanne Verveer, U.S. Ambassador at-large for Global Women's Issues. Appointed in 2009 by President Obama, Verveer is the State Department's first ever ambassador dedicated to the role of women in international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. Ambassador Verveer's work was cited in my master's thesis project on the sex trafficking of women and girls at New York University in 2010. I was honored to meet her prior to the start of
the luncheon. The program concluded with a lighthearted, yet poignant address from actress Patricia Heaton.

In March of this year, the United Nations announced that the world is on track to meet the drinking water targets set by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, half of the population of the developing world is still without sanitation facilities. Placing MDGs sanitation goals firmly out of reach for the 2015 deadline. According to the Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation of the World Health Organization, at least 2.5 billion people in the world do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities. The world's progress on clean drinking water has made great strides, but we must
not lose sight of the dire situation that is the result of not meeting the sanitation portion of the goal.

Women are disproportionately impacted by substandard sanitation conditions. Even in communities where toilets are not present, women are inclined to the same modesty and decorum that is adhered to by western women. As a result it is not uncommon for girls to drop out of school when they begin their periods. Lack of feminine hygiene products and having to share a bathroom with boys make this hallmark of life too embarrassing to endure in a school setting.

We must view the progress of the water and sanitation MDGs through a gendered lens. It is easily understood that the need for safe water is universal, a necessity for every man, woman and child. Sanitation conditions are still largely seen as private and taboo. Private and taboo it may be, but safe sanitation is a real problem, that adds to life's complications for marginalized and impoverished women and girls.