2015 is sure to be a historic year for girls and women. Worldwide efforts are ensuring that they will be a focus of the next set of development goals, voices speaking out against FGM are growing louder, the Malala effect is continuing to spread, and child marriage is finally being given the global attention it deserves.
Amongst this positive momentum, it’s crucial that one area doesn’t get left behind – as it’s an issue that is already lagging in its progress. Halving the number of people worldwide who do not have access to safe water and sanitation is the least on track of all Millennium Development Goals – according to a UN report published last year – and 2.5 billion people worldwide still lack basic facilities.
The effect of this on females is colossal. In communities where the responsibility for collecting water rests on the shoulders (or rather on the heads) of women and girl children, the task takes hours each day. For girls, this means hours out of the classroom and hours at risk of abuse. Inaccessible clean water has huge implications on women’s health, from their chance of giving birth in a safe environment to their ability to stay in education once they start menstruating.
Lack of global investment and government failure to plan countrywide programmes are cited as key reasons behind the slow progress. Chris Williams, executive director of the UN-based Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), believes “Many countries have really good strategies or targets … but their ability to translate that into decentralised implementation programmes is really weak.” It seems that water and sanitation programmes are not reaching people in the areas of the world that need them most.
One organisation working directly with communities being overlooked by larger programmes is Little BIG Africa – a grassroots NGO focusing on water, sanitation and hygiene in rural Uganda. LBA has worked in partnership with local communities in Manafwa over the past ten years to implement projects that give the hope of a healthy life to girls and their families. They believe that regular monitoring is key to successful projects and each of theirs is visited at least 3 times a year.
Since 2004, LBA has protected 68 water sources, constructed 80 water tanks at primary schools, and carried out thousands of hygiene and sanitation sensitisation sessions – through art, drama, music, dance and stories individuals gain the knowledge to become change-makers in their own families and wider communities.
Protected water sources greatly improve the health of whole communities (at the moment 44% of Ugandans drink water that is unsafe for human consumption) and mean that women and girls no longer have to travel up to 8 miles a day carrying 20kg of water.
At a school with no water girls are far more likely to drop out when they start menstruating and are forced to leave lessons to collect hundreds of litres of water per day. As well as the obvious effect of missing education, girls on the long and isolated routes to water sources are at real risk of sexual abuse once they leave school premises. LBA tanks are helping to change this reality for girls in Manafwa.
For LBA, the importance of bringing women into development discussions is taken very seriously. At every community meeting held, on every committee set up, females are warmly welcomed and encouraged to engage. Sitting at the heart of the family and the home, women know what works, what doesn’t work, and what their family needs.
The lives of girls in rural areas are under a spotlight this year, with huge potential for action. However, it is crucial that access to water remains firmly on centre stage. If women’s education and health are to improve then their access to water must be made more of a priority post 2015 – it can no longer be left trailing behind.
Smaller-scale, community-led, well-monitored and sustainable initiatives like LBA are making tangible differences to the health and lives of girls and their families in rural Uganda. Theirs is the kind of work that must be celebrated, invested in, and replicated.