03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Water and Women: A Gender Crisis, a Global Opportunity

You may be woman, but I can’t hear you roar. In fact, I
can’t hear you at all.

Maybe it is because you don’t really have time.  No one can blame you. But maybe if you, and
the hundreds of millions of women across the developing world trapped in similar
situations, weren’t forced to waste hours and hours each day hiking to find and
collect contaminated water for your families – just imagine what you could do.

Alemitu used to wake at 2 a.m. every morning with her
neighbors.  Together, they would walk for
miles in the darkness, bare feet against the rocky, rural Ethiopian terrain.  Alemitu carried a five-gallon plastic
container with her, a vessel that once held chemicals but now served to carry
water for her family.  Yet even when she
arrived at the pond, she had to wait in line with the other women from
neighboring communities to fill up.  After she finally had her turn, she
would strap the 44 pounds of dirty, fetid water on her back, and hike home.
This journey took five to six hours – every single day.

When she and the other members of her community received
their new, safe, and nearby water source, their lives were changed
forever.  A hand pump meant no more
leeches in their water, no more sharing their water with livestock and other
animals, no more strained back and stunted lives. For Alemitu, the pump
instantly relieved her of hours of work, creating more time in her day, more
energy for daily activities, and more time with her children. She finally was
introduced to once remote concepts like opportunity and possibility.

The world finally seems to be awakening to the inherent
power that women possess – energy and talent that is needed to address the many
challenges that face our planet.  This
past March – also known as International Women’s Month – President Obama said,
"We will not sow the seeds for a brighter future or reap the benefits of
the change we need without the full and active participation of women around
the world."  Goldman Sachs used the
month to publish its landmark "Womenomics" report which found that
investments in women correlates to real economic growth in developed and
developing countries.

Earlier this summer, New York Times columnist
Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDun headlined the August 17 issue of The
New York Times Magazine
with a
remarkable piece, “The Women’s
 The article precursor ed the
release of their new book “Half
the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,”
powerful work whose title is based on the Chinese proverb that “women hold up
half the sky.”  Through countless
examples and bold writing, Kristof and WuDun powerfully assert that this
proverb is an ideal rather than a reality.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has placed gender rights high on her agenda.  Last month, her husband explicitly prioritized the issue of
“investing in girls and women” at the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative, a theme
that carried through their four main topics of focus at the conference.  More recently, The
Girl Effect
has been getting a lot of notice on the web. It presents a
short, simple, and striking word-only animation of the world’s problems solved
by nothing other than - you guessed it –a girl. Finally, Oprah dedicated her
recent October
1st show
to this same topic, calling attention to women’s issues
worldwide such as sex trafficking, forced prostitution, education, maternal
mortality, and domestic violence.

Make no mistake, addressing transnational issues such as
education and sex slavery are critical to enabling gender equality and tapping the
remarkable capabilities of women around the world.  But there also needs to be a distinct
corollary drawn between women and water. Water must make its way onto the short
list of global policy priorities. Because the water crisis is truly is a women’s crisis with broad implications for all of humanity.

Take Alemitu’s story – tragically, this Sisyphean journey is
repeated on a daily basis in every corner of the earth.  Whether Ethiopia or Haiti, Honduras or India,
Indonesia or Egypt - the topography may differ, the culture may vary, but the
struggle is the same.  Women inevitably bear the burden of collecting the water essential
to sustain their families.   Now, imagine
more than 200 million
squandered every single day by women around
the world, females obligated to collect water from
distant, often polluted sources.  

Again, 200 million hours - every single day.  It is numbing to calculate the human toll
and wasted productivity associated with this labor.  Thus, in order to begin to address any
women’s issues, we must start with the basics.  Simply put, nothing is more
fundamental than providing women with safe and convenient access to clean water.

Thankfully, many impressive organizations and movements are
striving to raise awareness and to engage people on women’s issues, increasingly
in a manner relevant to water.  CARE deserves recognition for its long-standing
appreciation of the link between gender equity and water access.   The American
Jewish World Service
has done meaningful work in the developing world to
address the water-based gender gap. also has
connected the dots to demonstrate that water is, at its essence, clearly a
women’s issue.  Whether through aid
programs, micro-enterprise strategies or holistic social development, these
NGOs and others are pioneering new models to improve women’s access to water
and alleviating this chronic problem (editor’s note: the author serves on the
board of

There is a lot of talk these days about “investing” and “empowering”
the so-called “bottom billion.”  Yet, for
all of us who want to repair the world, we must do more than talk.  Instead, we must focus our collective efforts
where it matters most. Addressing the linkage between women and water is an
ideal starting point.  

Indeed, for those who have had the privilege of touching the
sky, we know that, when we help women access water and sanitation, we provide
them with the opportunity to lead lives of productivity and power, to meet
their potential, and to discover their roar.