THE BLOG
03/08/2011 10:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sexual Violence on the Way to Water

For us the act of collecting water poses no risk. We go to the tap and fill our glass. But for many in the developing world, particularly women and girls, such a day-to-day chore can be extremely dangerous.

Sixteen year old Scovia lives with her grandparents in a small village in North East Uganda. She leaves early in the morning to collect water for them. Scovia told WaterAid that when she walks to get water, she is routinely harassed by boys and men along the way, who threaten her with extreme forms of sexual violence and even death. Scovia's friends face the same threats, and she tells of one who is now pregnant after an attack. Unfortunately Scovia and her friend's experiences are not uncommon, and are not confined to water collection.

Amnesty International published a report last July entitled 'Risking Rape to Reach a Toilet' which documented how fear of sexual violence is keeping women in Kenya's Kibera slum away from communal toilets. Later this year the international NGO WaterAid will release a report showing similar findings in the slums of Bhopal, India.

Not only do women face violence, but the lack of safe water and toilets has a huge impact on a woman's ability to earn a living, get an education and spend time with her family.
It is estimated that in the world's poorest countries, women and girls like Scovia spend a staggering 40 billion hours every year fetching and carrying water. Households in rural Africa spend an average of 26 percent of their time fetching water, and it is generally women who are burdened with the task (UK DFID).

They walk for hours, often getting up in the middle of the night to begin their arduous journey and returning home carrying water containers weighing as much as 20kg, the same as the average baggage allowance on most airlines. No-one is exempt from the back-breaking work of walking for water -- girls as young as 10 years old can be responsible for fetching water for their family, and pregnant women sometimes keep on carrying water until the day they give birth.

Despite all this effort, the water they find at the end of their journey is often filthy and disease-ridden. Along with poor sanitation, dirty water causes diseases that kill 4,000 children every single day -- more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. When time spent collecting water is added to the other daily tasks that fall to women and girls, there is little time for anything else. No time to earn a living. No time for girls to go to school. In fact, 443 million school days are lost in the developing world every single year due to poor water and sanitation.

Scovia told WaterAid that she misses days from school every single month, because there is nowhere for her to go to the toilet, and as she is often sick with various diseases such as diarrhoea due to a lack of safe water. She also misses school when she is menstruating.
"We drink the water that the animals use. You know that the water is not safe, but you have to drink it. Every time after we drink that water you feel your stomach start to hurt and you get diarrhoea.

"Whenever I get diarrhoea I have to remain at home -- I cannot come to school. Sometimes teachers also get sick and cannot come to teach us. I get diarrhoea many times -- I cannot keep count. I have it at least once a week. I want to become a nurse. If I can't go to school I will not become a nurse."

With the opportunity to get an education denied to them, it is difficult for women to improve their position in society and few women are decision-makers in the community. However, when it comes to improving water and sanitation facilities, the knowledge and experience of women is crucial, and can increase their standing in the community.

Diarrah Tangara is a member of the women's association in Touna, Mali, which has been working with WaterAid to help improve access to safe water and sanitation. "The association has helped change men's attitude towards women -- they have learned about women's needs," she says.

Diarrah has no doubt that safe water and sanitation transforms life for women and girls and that this, ultimately, can transform the whole community. "Having clean water will bring a change in education, especially for girls," she explains. "If a girl goes to school this is not only important for herself but for the whole community and country. This means you are going to get a whole family and village educated -- don't forget families in Africa are managed by women."

This year, 8 March marks the centenary of International Women's Day, first organised in 1911 to campaign for women's rights. Much has been achieved for women around the world over the past 100 years but, the experiences of Scovia and the millions of women like her show that there is still a long way to go.