Bearing the Burden: Why Clean Water Is Vital to Elevating Women and Girls out of Poverty

Access to clean water is more than just a health issue – it’s the key to gender equality and female empowerment in the world’s least developed countries, says Kathryn Karol of the Caterpillar Foundation Board.

EDUCATION, HEALTH, EMPLOYMENT and time all share a common thread you may not expect: women. For many people, especially women and girls, these four areas represent opportunities lost when one vital resource is absent: water. Nothing can be accomplished or improved without first ensuring access to clean water. It is a basic building block that must be secured in order to pursue opportunities such as education and economic growth, and create sustainable, thriving communities.

For more than 844 million people worldwide, or one in every nine people on Earth, access to clean and safe water is still out of reach. The majority of these people live in rural areas and have to walk for hours to collect water for themselves and their families. And the burden of gathering water for households falls disproportionately on women and girls. In sub-Saharan Africa, women are responsible for 72 percent of the water collected and walk for miles each day to haul 40–80lb (18–36kg) of water home – sometimes repeating this journey several times a day. In Africa alone, women spend 40 billion hours a year walking for water – time that could instead be used to go to school, run a business or improve their households.

Beyond the time lost fetching water, the gender-specific implications of not having access to water faced by women are unfairly weighted. For example, in many developing countries, girls drop out of school when they reach puberty as a result of missing a week every month for menstrual management. Without an education, these girls become trapped in the poverty cycle with no tools to help build a way out. In fact, according to USAID, for every extra year a girl stays in school, her income can increase by 15–25 percent.

In addition, the water collected is often filled with disease-causing pathogens that cause conditions such as giardiasis, cholera and schistosomiasis. These illnesses can last for weeks or sometimes months, forcing people to lose valuable time at school or work. As primary caregivers, women are also impacted by sickness due to unsafe water – time spent caring for ill children or other family members may be time spent away from income-generating activities. If untreated, these diseases can often lead to death, especially in vulnerable individuals such as children – nearly one in every five deaths in those under the age of five worldwide is due to a water-related disease. Without clean water, people are unable to wash their hands or clean their food, which can further increase the spread of disease.

In the Caterpillar Foundation’s work to alleviate poverty around the world, we have seen first-hand how access to clean and safe water transforms the lives of these women and girls, and, ultimately, their communities. We are proud to work with innovative partners dedicated to solving this critical issue, such as Water.org.

Water.org focuses on removing the cost barrier of financing sustainable water access – some 91 percent of people reached by Water.org live on less than $6 per day. By bringing small, easily repayable loans to those who need access to affordable financing and expert resources, household water and toilets become possible. Furthermore, access to these resources helps to reduce hunger, improve health, enable equality, increase education, encourage economic empowerment and, eventually, break the cycle of poverty. Through our support of Water.org’s work since 2008, we have helped bring clean water and sanitation to 3.8 million people in India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Peru.

The ability to turn on a tap and have instant access to water for cooking and cleaning is something many of us take for granted. But for those in the developing world, the value of water and its impact on their lives is all too clear. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), access to clean water and basic sanitation can save around 16,000 lives every week. A WHO analysis also shows that for every $1 invested in water and sanitation, there is an economic return of $4. When people are no longer worried about collecting water, taking care of sick children or becoming sick themselves, they can invest their time in working toward a better future instead of just surviving. They can start businesses or improve their homes. They can go to school or get a job. They become empowered to improve their lives and the lives of those around them and can take steps to rise out of poverty.

With the help of our global partners, the Caterpillar Foundation has set out to empower 50 million people around the world to rise out of extreme poverty by 2020 and has worked to advocate and educate people about the important role water plays in making this goal achievable. This kind of work cannot be done alone; however, through collaborative and strategic partnerships, engaging with local communities, and implementing innovative and sustainable solutions, we know that water is one issue that can be solved.

So now we ask you the question that we have spent the past year asking ourselves and our partners: What will you do for water?

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