By Lisa Schechtman, Director of Policy & Advocacy at WaterAid America
Early in the new year, Congress made a bold move: it passed a spending bill for fiscal year 2014 that reversed many of the deep across-the-board cuts it imposed in recent years. This is good news in many ways.
It indicates renewed energy for working together for the good of the country. This should surely benefit the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act, which advances US National Security, US moral authority worldwide, and women’s health and wellbeing along with countless other issues. It also allows USAID, the State Department, and many other Federal Agencies to move beyond survival mode and take steps to do more efficient and effective work. At USAID, it has another implication as well.
This appropriations bill included the largest-ever allocation for international safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs. As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, I thought it was a good time to also celebrate the impact that this new support of WASH could have on the lives of women and girls everywhere.
I’ve said it before: water is a women’s issue. So are toilets. Every year, 40 billion hours are spent collecting water, mostly by women and girls, while 97 billion hours are expended by women and girls looking for a place to go to the bathroom. That’s 97 billion hours not spent at work or in school, and time away from play or family. It’s time that keeps many families in poverty, because collecting water and meeting basic bodily needs are, quite simply, top priority.
With additional funding from Congress, USAID’s water, sanitation and hygiene programs can not only have greater reach, but can also go deeper where they’ve already begun. Menstrual hygiene management is an often-overlooked element of global health and WASH programs, yet there is nothing more basic to women’s health than menstruation.
Schools without toilets often see high dropout rates among adolescent girls, who fear being discovered violating purity norms or who simply don’t have what they need to keep attending once they start their periods. Yet, with additional funding, USAID WASH experts may work more closely with its education programs to address this challenge. One WaterAid program in Bangladesh saw girls’ enrollment in school increase by 11% after a school sanitation program was implemented. Imagine the ripple effects across millions of lives if we could double the number of schools in low-income countries with adequate toilets.
There is also the protective role that more toilets and more water taps can play. One in three women will experience physical sexual or emotional violence in her lifetime. That same number, one in three women, lives without an improved latrine. By closing that gap and giving women what they need close to home, they will be able to spend less time in isolated areas looking for privacy, less time at communal services that put them in compromising positions in front of others, and less time walking in remote places. In other words, more WASH could help reduce violence against women.
More money from the US Government is no more a silver bullet than water, toilets and hygiene. Contributions must also come from poor country governments themselves, and the money must be carefully spent (that’s where the Water for the World Act comes in!).
After years of stagnant allocations to WASH, and cuts to areas important to WASH, including global health programs and development assistance, things are starting to look up. This International Women’s Day and every day, we look to Congress continue making decisions that support women and girls every day of the year, remembering just how many lives can be transformed for a tiny amount of money. Planning for a future that honors women every day, not just on March 8, is the very best thing that Congress can do for women.
Join us in giving them a little encouragement. Send a note of thanks for your Members of Congress’s support of increased funding for WASH today!
Cover image courtesy of WaterAid / Jon Spaull