4 June 2019

Africa: We Won't Achieve Gender Equality Until We Address the Lack of Water, Sanitation & Hygiene

Photo: Women Deliver Conference
The Women Deliver Conference is being held in Vancouver, Canada, 3-6 June 2019.

Lilongwe, Malawi — Giving birth is a life changing moment for women. It can be - when women have a safe and caring environment, positive and empowering - a moment to find a previously untapped inner strength.

But for too many women around the world, a lack of basic facilities mean that their lives and those of their babies are put at risk, risking death when they are bringing life into the world.

My fellow Malawian Rhoda, from Kasungu used her own lifechanging birth experience to help fight for the lives of future mothers and babies.

She was one of the women who bravely stood up and delivered an emotional speech at a community gathering attended by local politicians about her experience of giving birth on a roadside during the 25 kilometre walk to her nearest health centre.

Through co-ordinated advocacy, Rhoda and women like her succeeded in making their voices heard and convinced their elected representatives to dedicate resources to open a local hospital in their area.

She is one of a growing number of women who together are claiming their right to health and commit to challenging the status quo. With this growing momentum, things can really change for the better.

Rhoda said: "My experience giving birth on the way to the hospital was the last straw that made us demand this health centre. It was a frightening experience. We told the Member of Parliament that we were tired of empty promises. It was time to deliver."

Rhoda's experience could have so easily seen her join the heartbreaking maternal death statistics of Malawi where, 634 women die during or after birth for every 100 000 babies born alive. This is nearly three times the global average of 216 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births.

Fortunately, both survived the traumatic, dangerous and undignified experience but many others who also have to give birth in unhygienic conditions are not so lucky. Even those who manage to reach a midwife and a healthcare facility often face appalling infection risks.

Recent UNICEF-WHO data showed that 45% of healthcare facilities in least-developed countries (LDCs) do not have a source of clean water on site. Without clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene, it's impossible for medical staff to deliver quality care.

A lack of these necessities results in the lives of patients being put in danger and contributes not only to the spread of diseases but also the rise of drug-resistant infections as more antibiotics are needed to battle illnesses that good hygiene might have prevented.

Life is changing for many communities here in Malawi as more and more raise their voices, share their experiences of hardship and discrimination with those in power and demand provision of basic needs such as accessible health centres with clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene.

Shockingly, one in nine people around the world still don't have access to clean water close to home and one in three don't have a decent toilet of their own. It is no secret that in areas where water is scarce it's nearly always women and girls who face the hardship of walking long distances to collect what little water they can find.

A situation that makes them miss out on education and economic opportunities, and sometimes leaves them at risk of sexual assault and harassment. I know it's possible for these shocking statistics to be turned around.

We need to hear women's voices calling for water and sanitation in part because not having these basic rights disproportionately impacts women and girls

Without toilets, women's freedom and dignity is compromised. Many spend their days worrying about where they will be able to find a toilet, often resorting to the bush or waste ground.

That is why, this week, WaterAid is joining with over 8,000 others at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver. We want governments, the corporate sector and civil society to know that the voices and lives of women and girls matter.

We can't and won't achieve gender equality without addressing the lack of access to the basic human right that is water, sanitation and hygiene which millions of women and girls face worldwide.

Women like Rhoda are shining examples. And it is my hope that we will see more and more women standing in their power and advocating for their rights, despite unspeakable difficulty. Because when women and girls are given an active role in decision-making, transformation happens.

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