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A female responsibility

The following article was written by Sr. Meg Gallagher, a volunteer with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, and published in the Spring 2009 issue of “A matter of spirit,” the newsletter of the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center. The theme of the issue is water; all are encouraged to read through it for its thoughtful articles and resources.

Women’s lives all around the world are closely connected to water. Women and girls are responsible for collecting water for cooking, cleaning, health and hygiene, and if they have access to land, growing food.

In rural areas, women walk long distances to fetch water, often spending 4 to 5 hours per day carrying heavy containers and suffering acute physical problems. In Nanyangachor, Sudan, the nearest hospital is fifteen hours away by road in dry weather; during the rainy season roads are impassable, resulting in many deaths of women and children. In arid and drought-prone areas the challenge is compounded, while in urban areas, women and girls can spend hours waiting in line to collect intermittent water supplies at standpipes. The inordinate burden of fetching water inhibits women’s involvement in other activities such as education, income generation, cultural and political involvement, rest and recreation.

Pollution and lack of access to clean water proliferate the cycle of poverty, water born diseases and gender inequities. The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of all sickness in the world is attributable to unsafe water and sanitation. The correlation between water and sanitation is evident as maintenance of family health is mostly viewed as a female responsibility.

Extensive degradation of eco­systems, polluted water, contamination of ground water and aquifers, over-consumption of water in rich countries and by the rich in poor countries, as well as the impact of extreme poverty, have all contributed to an environmental catastrophe in the world’s water supply. In their roles as caregivers and mangers of households and natural resources, women are most affected by the current global water crisis. Women use vegetation and forests for medicinal plants, food and fuel, as well as for income generation, but these ecosystems rely on a healthy water supply. As the environment deteriorates, women’s livelihoods become increasingly vulnerable.

“We the women are responsible for feeding our families. The bush has now become a desert shrub in my area and there is nowhere to go to fetch wood. One day, unable to find enough wood, I used some branches to cook. Since the wood was not enough, I cut my plastic bassinette in pieces to fuel the fire … Then I took the wooden bench where I was seated and cut it to feed the fire…” (Satou Diouf, Gadiag, Senegal)

Water and the Millennium Development Goals

The Water for Life Decade (2005-2015) recognizes the central role that women play in providing, managing and safe­guarding water and as the main role models within the family when it comes to sanitation and hygiene. It is crucial to ensure the full participation and equal involvement of women and to approach water and sanitation issues from a gender perspective. The benefits and costs of water use can accrue equitably to all groups, and the creativity, energy and knowledge of both women and men can contribute to mak­ing water systems work better. Improvements in access to safe water and sanitation that involve both women and men will lead to multiple benefits in other areas, such as reducing poverty, enabling girls to get an education, and reducing child and maternal mortality.


  • Involve women and men equally in decision-making
  • Pay attention to the privacy and security needs of women and girls with regard to the location and design of sanitation facilities
  • Improve access to water for all
  • Accord women equitable access to land and other resources
  • Focus water and sanitation education and training programs on women and men equally
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