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Can better access to water aid women's rights in Africa?

Improving water accessibility – and fixing the gender imbalance connected with water collection – could improve the education and productivity of women and girls in 24 sub-Saharan African countries. 

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    A woman near Luphisi, South Africa, uses a hippo roller to collect water. She used to carry water on her head for more than a mile to the river and back home. The hippo carries three times as much water as a bucket. In rural South Africa few families have running water.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman /The Christian Science Monitor/File
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In 24 sub-Saharan African countries, there is a serious gender imbalance when it comes to the arduous, time-consuming task of water collection. 

More than 75 percent of the sub-Saharan African population travels long distances to collect water for daily use and consumption. But the burden of this work is disproportionately borne by women. A new joint study published Wednesday from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University and Korea University in Seoul reveals that of the millions of people charged with this task, adult women and girls constitute a majority in every country surveyed.    

Traveling long distances away from home to collect water exposes women and girls to dangerous risks such as physical stress, disease, and sexual assault. A container of water typically weighs between 40 and 55 pounds, and most women and children have "less physical capacity to carry heave loads in contrast to adult men," leading to pain and fatigue, the study states.  

The gender inequality associated with water collection can also lead to other negative outcomes for women and girls, the study suggests, such as less time to focus on education or gainful employment. As a result, the study concludes, improved water infrastructure in African countries isn't just about better hygiene and convenient access. Spending less time carrying water could also lead to more economic opportunities for women and girls. 

"First of all there is the health issue of carrying water, but the time process is rarely quantified. Girls often can't go to school, it's an injustice that this should happen in this day and age," Sanjay Wijesekera, chief of water, sanitation and hygiene at UNICEF, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "And for women, it means they could be doing more productive things, or leisure activities, which they are also entitled to. But 'productive' doesn't just mean a job – it could mean child care or gardening. It's a rights issue for women and girls and it has severe and lasting impacts on the lives of children."

Adult women were the primary water collectors in all 24 sub-Saharan Africa countries surveyed, with more than 2.9 million women spending more than 30 minutes a day collecting water in Nigeria. In Ethiopia the numbers were even higher with more than 4.7 million women employed in this daily task. 

These sizable figures are primarily attributed to the large overall populations in Nigeria and Ethiopia – by far the largest of all 24 surveyed countries. In Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Malawi, and Mozambique, for example, the number of adult female water collectors was smaller but the respective ratios were higher: More than 80 percent of the primary water collectors in both rural and urban households in these countries were adult females.

"Our own data corroborates that," adds Mr. Wijesekera. "It's completely wrong that women and girls are three times more likely to walk for water, that's deeply unfair. It diminishes their whole prospects in life. It is a chain reaction that denies women and girls their fundamental rights." 

To fix this problem, Jay Graham, a researcher at George Washington University and lead author of the study, tells the Monitor that gender inequality has to first be registered in water collection assessments.  

"There are externalities of collecting water that aren't accounted for in other studies," says Dr. Graham. "The gender dimension is total missing [from other studies] so we are trying to promote this gender inequality metric."

Take Malawi for example, says Graham. Most studies on water collection in Africa place Malawi in the success column: 85 percent of the nation's population have improved water supply. But when looking at water collection responsibilities in the small, land-locked country in terms of gender inequality the assessment isn't as progressive. For every 18 women in Malawi who collect water for their households, only one man is responsible for the same chore. And the gender inequality in water collection is also prevalent among children in Malawi with a girl-to-boy ratio of 10:1. More than 1 million women in Malawi spend more than 30 minutes collecting water each day.  

"There are all of these impacts that public health doesn't focus on," says Graham. "We know that if children aren't educated it effects fertility rates and life spans – but these are indirect effects of water collection. Public health needs to embrace more of these social determinants of health, like education and paid labor."

Overall, when water collection chores fell on children, girls dominated collection rates at 62 percent compared with 38 percent for boys. 

"After such an arduous chore, [girls] may arrive late and tired at school. Being 'needed at home' is a major reason why children, especially girls from poor families, drop out of school," explains a UNICEF report on gender and water collection. "A study in Tanzania showed a 12 percent increase in school attendance when water was available within 15 minutes compared to more than a half an hour away."

It is not unusual for children in Africa to help around the family household. But researcher David Hemson found in a 2007 study for the the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africathat children in four different regions of South Africa spent the majority (between 69 and 90 percent) of allocated chore-time collecting water.

"From the public health perspective, embracing education – and the water collection that indirectly impacts that – will have a downstream impact in health. Once we begin to measure and track [gender inequality], we can improve upon it. Countries can say 'we want to reduce the time people spend collecting water' but now they can also begin to track gender ratios in water collection," says Graham. "A lot of tackling gender inequality is getting people to recognize the equality of men and women – and this is a large campaign. If these communities are going to progress, they need to embrace the equality of men and women." 

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