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#1 Way to Girl Empowerment: Safe Water and Sanitation

Today, estimates claim that a staggering 130 million girls under the age of 18 are not attending school. Empowering girls to attend school is critical to global progress.

Research on the country-specific impact of girls in school show that better educated women participate more in the labor force. They are healthier, they have higher incomes, and they are able to provide their children with greater access to education.

In short, investing in girl empowerment lifts an entire country.

Of all the factors that keep girls from school, poverty is the primary reason. Together, unsafe water and the inaccessibility of basic sanitation are leading contributors to extreme poverty. Access to safe water combats poverty and increases girl empowerment at the most basic level in the globe’s poorest communities.

Here’s how access to safe water empowers girls around the world.

1. Safe Water is a Pathway to Education and Girl Empowerment.

Approximately 10 percent of the globe is living without access to basic drinking water. That’s nearly 800 million people.

Communities living without basic access to safe water struggle to afford tuition and school supplies amidst scare resources and expensive medical fees to treat waterborne illness.

Girls in particular often bear the responsibility of household work, including gathering water. This keeps them busy filling their containers from faraway sources while they could be in class.

According to the United Nations, “addressing the needs of females in relation to water, sanitation and hygiene is a key driver in achieving gender equity and unlocking the potential of half of global society.”

WASH (water access, sanitation, and hygiene) has the power to unlock the potential of girls everywhere.

Girl Empowerment
Girls in their WASH Club at Bulumba Primary School, Uganda performing a song about safe sanitation and hygiene.

In over 40 years of water access work in low-income countries, Lifewater has found that when communities have basic access to safe drinking water and practice life-saving sanitation and hygiene habits in their homes, more children are able to go to school.

In a detailed survey of Lifewater International’s programs in West Arsi Ethiopia, schools in the region saw a 1,824-student increase in enrollment following Lifewater’s WASH programs; 22 percent more girls were attending school than before.

Empowering girls first starts with access to education, and WASH makes going to school a possibility for girls.

READ THE WEST ARSI ENDLINE SURVEY RESULTS >

2. Safe Water Provides for Dignified Menstruation.

According to the World Bank, an international institution that provides financial and technical assistance to developing countries, an estimated 500 million women and girls around the world lack the basic facilities needed for menstrual hygiene management (MHM).

“Inadequate WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) facilities, particularly in public places, such as in schools, workplaces or health centers, can pose a major obstacle to women and girls,” the World Bank said. “The lack of separate toilets with doors that can be safely closed, or the unavailability of means to dispose of used sanitary pads and water to wash hands, means that women and girls face challenges in maintaining their menstrual hygiene in a private, safe and dignified manner.”

This results in absenteeism prominent in the world’s developing communities, which in turn disempowers girls.

With access to safe water on campus, menstruation hygiene management resources for girls, and bathrooms constructed with them in mind, girls can feel confident attending school.

Girl Empowerment
Students at Bulumba Primary School, Uganda, holding the school’s inventory of female sanitary supplies.

Lifewater constructs drainable pit latrines in schools with changing rooms and menstruation resources for girls. Students, teachers, and staff are also trained in Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) to reduce stigma and create a comfortable environment for girls.

Lizzy MacRae Garvin, Lifewater’s WASH Program Officer to Uganda, said, “When girls don’t have WASH infrastructure, they may not attend school when they are menstruating; that’s a week a month every single month and a huge disadvantage for girls as far as education.”

“For girls, when there are facilities and a supportive environment… it allows girls to participate more fully in their education,” she added.

When girls have the basic resources to participate in their education like their male peers, they’re empowered to succeed.

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3. Safe Water and Sanitation Improve Health.

Each year, waterborne diseases afflict hundreds of millions of people, primarily those living without safe, accessible water. Waterborne illnesses also weaken immune systems and lead to malnutrition, leaving children exposed to other dangerous diseases.

Safe water and girl empowerment go hand in hand. When girls can drink safe water, they are healthier. Their families save money on frequent medical costs, and in turn, can invest in education. More girls get the opportunity to attend school.

Girl Empowerment
Young girls in Ethiopia are safe from life-threatening waterborne illnesses because of the provision of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene in their communities.

And, when girls attend school, they live healthier lives as adults. Their children (should they choose to have any) are more likely to live healthy lives.

Junjian Gaoshan of the United National Population Fund captured this in a commentary on mother/child health in Sierra Leone. The West African country has one of the highest neonatal mortality rates in the world.

“Young mothers with limited education often don’t know how best to provide quality feeding and a safe environment for their infant,” Gaoshan said. “When babies are severely ill, mothers… extremely limited educational background does not allow them to describe a baby’s symptoms properly, which in turn makes it very difficult for doctors to diagnose the problem in a timely manner.”

Safe water and improved sanitation in schools and in homes around the world improve health for generations. This improved health leads to girl empowerment on many fronts.

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4. Safe Water Improves Confidence and Girl Empowerment.

Basic access to safe water allows girls to maintain cleanliness, be healthier, and spend time developing a trade, owning a business, or attending school rather than walking for water.

Each increases confidence for girls.

An anonymous female student from Lifewater’s completed West Arsi programs said, “I feel confident and beautiful because I keep my personal hygiene; you only have confidence to sit and talk to people if you are clean.”

Girl Empowerment
A young Cambodian girl demonstrates to her peers the best way to wash hands at the new hand washing stations at their school.

MacRae Garvin identified the stigma often associated with menstruation in communities and schools and how to reverse it in developing communities.

“Appropriate WASH helps mitigate shame and potential harassment or bullying,” she said. “Our new MHM curriculum in schools explores how to create an enabling environment for girls to stay in school.”

This includes providing a sustainable, safe water source on campus, sanitary bathrooms,  lessons on making reusable pads, providing beaded bracelets so girls can track their monthly cycles, training teachers on how to make their school a safe environment for girls, and more.

“It is so fundamental that girls can attend school and be comfortable and safe when they experience a very normal and healthy part of their life,” MacRae Garvin said.

5. Safe Water Provides Greater Social and Economic Opportunities.

Safe water empowers girls to live healthy lives, feel confident, and attend school with their male peers.

Right now, a lack of safe water, adequate bathrooms and menstrual hygiene resources in schools is disproportionately affecting girls. WASH gives girls greater equality, lifting them up to succeed in school and expanding their opportunities in the workforce.

According to the UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, “Education enhances women’s understanding of their place in society, provides them with the skills and information to exercise their voice in relationships, and enables them to negotiate for their own interests.”

Giving girls the basic resources to stay in school is step one.

“To me, WASH seems like the most fundamental thing that we can do to improve the status of girls internationally,” MacRae Garvin said.

Investing in safe water, sanitation, and hygiene access is an investment in an entire community or school, but it particularly eases the disproportionate challenges that girls face each day.

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