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Clean Water Is A Women's Empowerment Issue

Our world is facing a serious clean water crisis. 

A lot of progress has been made toward improving clean water access over the past few decades. In 1990, over 40 countries recorded over 100 deaths per 100,000 people related to water contamination. In 2017, the number was reduced to 9. Many people are increasingly aware of the importance of water, and the lack of access that troubles many low-income countries. However for 666 million people, this positive change is yet to come. 

One in three people do not have access to safe drinking water- about 11% of the population of the world. Unsafe water is responsible for 1.2 million deaths each year.

For many people, access to clean water requires a long walk to a lake or river, and often this water source is polluted. When people need to make this kind of journey to collect water, the long walk comes with many uncertainties. Water may become contaminated during transport, and many people are unsafe while walking through remote areas.

On top of these uncertainties, the sheer amount of time that it takes to collect this water requires many to spend hours away from their home, school, or farm. Because of this, a lack of access to clean water is a primary contributor to the poverty of millions.

This challenge poses even more severe consequences for women.

In the countries with the least water access, the responsibility of collecting water typically falls on women and young girls. 

Collecting a sufficient amount of water demands a significant investment of both energy and time. Globally, women and girls spend around a collective 200 million hours collecting water every day, according to UNICEF. Put another way, this adds up to 8.3 million days, or more than 22,800 years. This is time not spent furthering education, generating income, and much more. 

The average distance many women will walk for water in sub-Saharan Africa is roughly six kilometers, which takes an average of 30 minutes. However in more challenging locations, rural women will require as much as four hours to complete their journeys to collect water.

For sub-Saharan African women, this involves carrying a repurposed, bright plastic container. Women will make the return portion of their journey carrying the full can of water on their heads, typically balancing around five gallons or 40 pounds of water.

In Haiti, a large majority of the population does not have access to clean, potable water. Nearly one-fifth of infant mortalities are tied to waterborne illnesses, as are 80% of all diseases in the country. These problems get even worse following natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes, which are often followed by outbreaks like cholera.

Meladie, a Haitian woman who now partners with Plant With Purpose was one of these women. She suffered from a chronic illness while still having to meet the needs of her family. They had no financial resources and could not even take out a loan. After some time they resorted to cutting trees on their land to sell. “I was discouraged and felt stuck!” she recalls.

Physical pain and violence are also challenges for women collecting water.

The loss of time and income opportunity is not the only way in which the lack of access to clean water is felt more harshly by women. Many of the challenges that stem from the water crisis are physical ones.

Dr. Joanne Geere has studied the health implications of water collection in South Africa and the impact on the human body from balancing 40 pounds. As a result of this physically demanding responsibility, excruciating spinal, back, and head pain are commonly experienced. 

There is also the intensified risk of violence. The long walk that women must take in order to get water often traverses through remote and secluded areas. Sadly, this creates the opportunity for physical harm and assault. 

How can the potential of women in environmental restoration be realized if they are away from their land? 

With women sacrificing up to four hours per day to collect water, they cannot invest this time in their farms, their primary source of income. In many rural communities, women are tasked with cultivating a variety of crops, including wheat, maize, and rice. These staple crops not only feed their family members but also bring in a financial income. Time spent away from a farm represents lost income and opportunity.

While Plant With Purpose aims to improve families’ lives by providing training on regenerative farming and sustainable practices, all that training would be ineffective if women simply don’t have time to implement these new methods.

Being a member of a Plant With Purpose group has given Meladie a vision for what she could do with her land. “I have more technical knowledge about farming and the environment. My sense of responsibility has increased too,” she acknowledges.

“I learned a lot of techniques from my group, like tree cultivation, planting, composting, grafting, and cutting” shared Meladie. 

That’s why one of the 12 key indicators Plant With Purpose relies on as a measure of household poverty includes access to water. The clean water crisis is a fundamental problem that prohibits women and girls from breaking out of the poverty cycle and prevents them from realizing their potential.

clean water happiness Taken by: Floresta Burundi Location: Mutsindozi, Burundi

Plant With Purpose confronts this obstacle to women’s empowerment and actively improves their access to clean water by restoring, protecting, and transforming watersheds. 

Our efforts to help women, and ultimately all family members in partner countries, access clean water are enhanced through the watershed model of our programs. 

Plant With Purpose designs its environmental restoration work around the natural geography of a watershed. Typically, many of our farmers plant and harvest on steeper, inclined land as they do not have the financial means to work on flat farmland, which is high in cost. When chemicals are used on crops or ash burning occurs in communities, the excess of these often gather into the water sources downstream, contaminate the quality of water, and end up back into the bodies of those who collect water for cooking, hydration, or farming purposes. 

By planting trees on strategic hills, contaminants are reduced, which subsequently improves the quality of these water streams, which betters the health of families, children, and all women who access this water.

In many communities, Plant With Purpose also supports the construction of cisterns and water storage capabilities. This helps communities like Grande Colline, where Meladie resides, remain water secure by collecting clean rainwater near their homes. 

Clean water is a worthwhile pursuit and a global goal.

The importance of clean water has gained more widespread international attention over the past decade. In 2015, the United Nations (UN) named universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation all among its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to meet by the year 2030.

Plant With Purpose is making strides to meet this goal as our watershed model consists of honing in on tree planting and soil conservation activities on watershed areas to enhance the quality and availability of water. This makes SDG No. 6, Clean Water and Sanitation, among the seven UN SDGs directly impacted by Plant With Purpose’s work, alongside others like (No. 13) Climate Action and (No. 1) Ending Poverty. Because of the connection between water access and women’s empowerment, it also impacts SDG No. 5, Gender Equality.

Empowering women is vital to solving the clean water crisis our world is facing.

Our work aims to both celebrate and uphold the value of women, while dismantling the barriers to their advancement and equity. As 93% of household water collectors worldwide are women, the pursuits of gender equality and clean water are intertwined.

When clean water sources are made accessible to women, they are empowered to improve their futures. They can break out of the cycle of poverty because they have more time to dedicate to education, farming, small business, community engagement, and other activities.

Safe water and sanitation are human rights and important development goals. Women who have access to clean water are more equipped to pursue their dreams, goals, and the wellbeing of their families and communities. Their time can be spent on the farm to grow their household income or participate in sustainable farming training. When these women are also empowered to practice regenerative agriculture as they farm, they become vital to reversing climate change.

“Farming also provides me with food and money. I am enthusiastic about reforestation and farming,” shares Meladie, whose newly acquired regenerative farming skills are now healing the ecosystems of Grande Colline. “I am a core leader. I advise other people to join our group so they can also learn about the environment and farming practices, and can solve their problems as a group. My future hope is to keep planting more and more trees.”

The challenge that rural women face is multifaceted, and it includes issues like climate change, poverty, and water access. When the variety of challenges seems overwhelming, it is helpful to remember that they are linked, and progress in one area helps improve all.

“I keep praying for relief from my disease,” updates Meladie. “But I thank God that he’s provided us with a cistern. I have clean water, and I can use water to safely grow more trees and reforest more land.”

One of the aims of the Plant With Purpose program is to reduce the amount of time for women to get clean water. If you would like to help, make a donation to support the program.

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