International Women’s Day – Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

Saturday (8th March) was International Women’s Day. Two years ago I posted about this on Facebook and was met with a host of comments along the lines of ‘get back in the kitchen’. I like to think the popular image of feminism has come along a lot since then… Having said that, I was asked recently “are you really a feminist?” A resounding yes, said with a smile. “Why? Women are equal these days.” Spluttering laughter…. Errrr what?!

So this is the first of a few posts on some issues affecting women on the world – generally based on talks I heard at the annual WOW Festival at South Bank, London, which took place over the weekend. This is a three day extravaganza (the women of the world festival) celebrating the achievements of women and looking at the important issues that affect us today. It is filled with exciting, inspiring, fun, devastating and above all, interesting talks. I was able to go to two which I think pointed out quite well just why women are not equal these days.

South Bank

Beautiful day at the South Bank

The first was on water, sanitation and hygiene, hearing about the large parts of the world where there is no running water. This causes numerous problems beyond the obvious concerning safe drinking water.

1) Girls have to walk for miles every day to pick up water. This in itself has numerous consequences – girls are unable to do their homework due to their water duties, some are even taken out of school altogether. The walk to get water is often dangerous. The Kenyan journalist Judy Kosgei spoke of girls who had told her about boys lying in wait, violence and sexual violence occurring on this solo walk to get water.

2) Without running water, there are no toilets. Urinating and defecating is done outside, often with little privacy, if any. This then leads to menstruation issues…..

3) Practically, there is no water to wash the rags that are often used as sanitary towels in developing countries. Girls have to invent other things – a piece of animal hide which they tie in place with loops round their legs, feathers. In some communities when a chicken is killed, the girls and women are looking forward not to the meat, but to getting the feathers. Kosgei wrote a piece on sanitary towels in Kenya. She went out to rural areas to interview girls, taking with her loads of sanitary towels to donate – but then discovered that not only did the girls have no way of disposing of these towels, as they had no knickers, they couldn’t wear them as they had nothing to attach them to!

Beyond the practical concerns stemming from lack of water, there are a myriad of cultural issues surrounding periods. They vary depending on what country you’re in, but in every case, including the UK, periods are surrounded by shame and silence. Luckily in the UK it is mainly limited to just not talking openly about them – periods are seen as gross and horrible. In the rest of the world the cultural issues are more serious.
For example, in parts of Africa there is a cultural myth that a woman doesn’t have a period until she is married and no longer a virgin. Girls have to borrow pads (in whatever form) from their married aunts, friends and sisters. If they can’t do that, they have nothing.

Girls with nothing obviously cannot go to school during their period. Instead they have to sit on the ground so the blood will just soak away into the earth.

The silence and shame surrounding periods mean that many shopowners (often men) won’t stock sanitary towels. They wouldn’t sell them as women wouldn’t go into the shop to buy them. It also means that they are often prohibitively expensive (as this man in India discovered).

So what can be done? The great thing about this talk was that after the panel had discussed the basics, the floor was opened up to questions. A lot of them hinged on what can we do, how can this be changed? Why hasn’t it been? If water is so important, why isn’t it at the top of every policy-makers agenda when it comes to developing countries?

The best answer in my opinion came from Alphonsine Kabagabo. She said we had to empower women to get them into the decision-making process – especially decision-making concerning water in local communities. This should be combined with education for both girls and boys on why menstruation occurs to try and lessen the stigma.

But it can’t just be blamed on men in power not wanting to discuss periods. I learnt from Kosgei that the Kenya Constitution of 2010 requires that there is a gender balance in representation on elective bodies – no more than 2/3 of the members must be made up of any one sex. Effectively meaning that there must be at least 1/3 female representation. The women in the Kenyan Parliament pushed hard for money to be spent on providing free sanitary pads to school girls and in 2011, money was provided from the national budget directly for this cause. But despite evidence showing improvements in girls’ performance in school, 2013 saw reduced funding and a 16% tax slapped on sanitary towels. Kosgei was clearly angry as she spoke about how the women in parliament sat by and just let this happen. It just goes to show that merely having women in power is not always the answer – perhaps the shame and cultural antipathy to discussing periods still causes problems, perhaps something else.

So what can we do? Well, if you were going to donate to a charity, you could donate to Water Aid. If you want to get into politics or international development, you could raise awareness of lack of water and lack of sanitation. Or we can just keep talking about periods, keep changing our culture bit by bit, keep informing others of what life is like for many women around the world. We can keep our eyes open and learn that it is not as simple as providing school places for girls. It is not even as simple as giving girls free sanitary towels.

I have no answers, but it was an incredibly interesting talk and I’m really glad I went!


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