By Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi
Growing up in Nigeria, I had access to basic amenities such as running tap water, but for most rural women and girls in some parts of Nigeria and Africa, access to clean water was a gift. Women there still shoulder the burden of collecting water daily for both domestic and agricultural use; bathing is a luxury.
A UN report on the gender dimension of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) estimates that 62 percent of women in sub-Saharan Africa are responsible for collecting water. Living among northern Nigerian women, I observed how lack of access to water hurt their economic status, hygiene, and access to sanitation and irrigation. Women often walk two hours daily to collect water, carrying heavy containers on their shoulders and disregarding the effect it has on their health. As a result of the strenuous walks, some pregnant women suffer miscarriages. Most times, the water fetched is unclean, and the children who drink it are especially susceptible to waterborne diseases such as cholera, while others die immediately after drinking acidic water.
Women’s lack of access to water and land ownership are entwined, making them more susceptible to poverty. While men have access to cars and camels for transporting water to grow crops, women rarely do . Women sometimes must get approval from their husbands or male family members to own land. Without title to land, women are often denied access to technologies and resources –– such as credit extension and seed –– that enable them to expand their businesses. With men’s agricultural activities regarded as the top priority, there may be water provided through irrigation for farming, but no such prioritization for accessible and safe drinking water. Access to water can enhance women’s income generation in agricultural activities, enabling them to reinvest in their families and communities.
Resolving the clean water scarcity is not just a matter for the government. Privatization — when the government sells the rights to private companies — has also hindered women’s access to water. Although women place high importance on water, their inability to pay for water constrains them to use dirty rainwater.
Women in the rural areas lack sanitation facilities such as toilets, sewers and wastewater treatment. Sometimes they can’t afford to build these facilities, while other times it’s based on cultural beliefs. In a village where I stayed in southern Nigeria, it’s believed that it’s a waste of space to construct a toilet. Without access to latrines, many women and girls become prisoners of daylight, only daring to relieve themselves in the bush under the cover of darkness. This makes them vulnerable to sexual violence and attacks by animals. Access to sanitation facilities is especially imperative for menstruating women, pregnant women and nursing mothers.
Education is another casualty of the water shortage. Girls miss school because they have to take care of their siblings while their mothers are collecting water, or sometimes they themselves have to collect water. They also leave school during their menstrual period as there are no adequate sanitary facilities in their schools.
Tackling the water shortage faced by women can lead to progress in many other areas, such as sustainable development, poverty eradication, women’s rights, reproductive and maternal health, improved education for girls and a reduction in morbidity and mortality rates.
Let’s think of a new framework for security. When people think of security they think of weapons of mass destruction, war and terrorism. When I think of it, I look at it from the human security perspective. Are you safe from chronic threats such as hunger? Are you able to attend school with your brothers? Are you able to earn a steady income through ownership and cultivation of your own land? Having access to water is not just a human need, it’s a matter of human dignity.
The writer Osowobi Ayo is a master’s degree holder in International Relations and a gender advocate from Swansea University, Uk