Celebrate Women: Don't WASH Away Their Rights

03/07/2015 08:40 am ET | Updated May 07, 2015

March 8th is International Women's Day -- a day to recognize and celebrate all women, as well as achievements towards gender equality and women's empowerment. Which leads us to ask: What are the achievements that we celebrate for women in the area of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)? Is the global WASH crisis a woman's issue?

Former UN Special Rapporteur for the human right to water and sanitation Catarina de Albuquerque said: "Sanitation, more than many other human rights issues, evokes the concept of human dignity." I say: this is especially true for women.

When I grew up in Sri Lanka, many people - and particularly women-- struggled with what people in the developed world took for granted. Today, Sri Lanka has achieved universal access to drinking water and over 90% access to sanitation. So, substantial progress is possible within a generation.

In many other countries around the world, the poor in particular have an extraordinarily difficult time with access to basic services. But it doesn't have to be this way.

It is, frankly, appalling that even in this era where we can celebrate great advances for women all across the world in the areas of business, finance and politics, there are still millions who are denied their basic right of water, sanitation and hygiene. Their right to live with decency and dignity.

Even a quick review of women's access to water, sanitation and hygiene shines a light on the unrelenting disgrace and discrimination women face. It brings us face to face with the reality of women's lives; their daily challenges even in meeting their most basic needs: getting water; going to the toilet.

Globally a little over 1 billion people - men, women and children -- defecate in the open. But defecating without privacy carries far more risk for women than men, exposing them to the threat of, harm and even sexual assault. The struggle for women in informal settlements in Kenya, for example, being followed and attacked on their way to the toilet have been documented by Amnesty International.

It does not have to be this way. In Mali only 15% of rural households use improved sanitation. According to women surveyed, implementation of the Community-led total sanitation program - which led to the end of open defecation in target villages - increased not only the use of toilets but also their sense of privacy and safety during defecation. It protects their dignity and makes them feel safer while carrying out a natural bodily function.

And take something as basic as access to safe water. Many of the world's population spends up to three hours a day to get the water they need to survive. Women and children usually bear the greatest burden of water collection, walking miles to the nearest well, pipe, pond or river. The amount of time spent in collecting water keeps girls and women from school, work and taking care of their families. These long walks also subject them to a greater risk of harassment and assault. Diseases linked to unsafe water endanger their lives and health. All these risks they run. For what? For a basic right: to have safe drinking water.

The truth is: inadequate access to water, sanitation and hygiene is a violation of fundamental human rights. If women realize these rights, it will make not just the 8th of March but every single day a day where women and girls can stand proud, and reach their fullest potential.

As women's rights activist Gloria Steinem rightly said: "The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights."

I hope that soon ALL women will be able to have a safe and dignified International Women's day.