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10 things girls and women could be doing instead of collecting water

This blog was originally published on Global Citizen on Sept. 22, 2014.

I hate to admit this, because no one likes to show their flaws, but the other day I realized that I was lazy. It was hot in my office, I was thirsty and had a headache. I knew that if I didn’t drink some water then I was going to get even more dehydrated and perhaps develop a migraine, but in my head a voice was telling me that I just “didn’t feel like it.” I didn’t feel like making the 20-foot walk to the cold, filtered, water tap that we are fortunate enough to have access to in our kitchen.

I instantly checked my privilege and remind myself that around the world at that very moment, a person, most likely a woman, was making a 3 to 7 mile trip to go and get water that, most likely, was not cold or filtered, but was all she had access to.

In just one day, it is estimated that more than 152 million hours of women and girls’ time is taken up by collecting water. If you apply the theory that doing something for 10,000 hours can create an expert, that many hours is enough to create 15,200 experts. Now, who wouldn’t want an extra 15,200 experts in the world?!

When women and girls have access to clean water they can spend less time collecting it and more time focusing on important things like:

1. Going to school

WaterAid/ Suzanne Porter

There are a staggering 59 million girls around the world who are out of school. One of the biggest barriers keeping young girls from attending school is the need to collect water. Without water, a family cannot drink, prepare food, or clean. The burden to collect this water is disproportionately placed on the female family members of a household and is prioritized over education.

Girls often have to walk long distances to fetch water and firewood in the early morning. After such an arduous chore, they may arrive late and tired at school. Being “needed at home” is a major reason why children, especially girls from poor families, drop out of school. Providing water closer to homes increases girls’ free time and boosts their school attendance.

As girls are no longer required to miss school to secure water for their families, attendance in school increases and girls’ level of education and literacy rates go up!

2. Being able to do household tasks, easily.

WaterAid/ Rindra Ramasomanana

Water is needed for everyday things and in order to complete many household chores such as drinking, food production and preparation, hygiene, washing clothing, and cleaning. If women were to have access to fresh, clean water they would be able to complete household tasks much more easily.

“We recall the days when we had to walk miles to fetch water or do laundry. It was exhausting. Now everything is near the house, and this task becomes a piece of cake.”

The farther we can spread easy access to clean water, the less time women will spend collecting water for household needs. This would allow them to do laundry, cook food, and wash dishes much more quickly and efficiently and give them the chance to spend more time doing some of the other awesome things on our list!

3. Learn new skills to contribute to community building

WaterAid/Layton Thompson

In order to create a sustainable development model you need to engage the entire workforce. Although women are responsible for making a home, they are massively overlooked when it comes to actually building them. It is estimated by the International Labour Organisation that in Africa women only make up 5.5 percent of the construction workforce, compared to 11.7 percent in North America. The reasons behind this can be varied, but if women were given back the 1 to 3 hours they lose each day collecting water, they could use the time to learn new skills. Just think what could be achieved in their local communities if women were able to help!

4. Farm the land

WaterAid/ Anna Kari

Alakamisy is a farming community, with most of the population receiving their livelihood from growing rice or raising livestock. The nearest town (Betafo) is over 19 kilometers away; in the rainy season, the roads to the community become inaccessible. Until 2008, everyone in the area collected water from a nearby spring or river. These water sources were unprotected and dirty. The spring was tainted with sulphur, which caused sickness and meant that many of the villagers lost multiple teeth. But with access to safe and clean water, Alkamisy was able to increase the quality of their crops and is no longer at risk of creating health problems amongst their community and buyers. They are now able to profit from their crops and build their community.

Noeline, president of the tapstand, stated, “Before we couldn’t have gardens with vegetables, mangoes, maize but now we can grow what we want to because we have water. We eat a part of them and sell the rest. It’s now income for the family. We go to Betaf market to sell the vegetables. We use the money for food and the other part for breeding pigs, cows, hens, chickens.  We can use the money to plant trees. Before we could not build a house – we have built a lot now because we have more animals so we build homes for them. There are separate homes for pigs and cows. Before the project we had a home, but people lived in the upper floor and the animals downstairs. Now we live separately.”

Access to clean water can make the difference between failing and thriving in farming communities.

5. Teach their children skills

WaterAid/ Anna Kari

Did you know it’s estimated that for each extra year of a mother’s schooling, infant mortality can be cut by  5-10 percent? This is why education is so important. Education has the power to increase earning potential and save lives! Additionally, the stories and lessons mothers pass down to their children are a key part of culture, having been passed down from generation to generation. When a mother has the time teach her children, her child has newfound opportunities for understanding, livelihood, and success.

I think Nelson Mandela said it best: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

6. Look after their elders

WaterAid/Anna Kari

Who doesn’t know a grandma or granddad that loves to be around their children and grandchildren, like, all the time?

“In many tribal communities, elders are respected for their wisdom and life experiences. Within Native American families, it’s common for the elders to be expected to pass down their learnings to younger members of the family”

Getting that extra bit of time to spend with your elders can make a huge difference. Not only can you be there to take care of them in their time of need, but you can also learn lots of new things from them along the way.

7. Catch up with friends

WaterAid/ Anna Kari

“The deterioration of our connections with each other not only impoverishes our personal and communal lives, but also has a significant effect on our health and well-being.”

It’s always hard to catch up with your friends when you’re all leading such busy lives. But checking in on each other, talking about the important and not so important things, is an incredibly productive use of time.

When people and friends come together around common issues, there’s no stopping them, especially women. It’s often women who lead behavior change in their communities—for example, helping to end open defecation and ensuring good hygiene practices are followed.

Yahna Dinwur, 13, is a member of her local hygiene club: “I volunteered to join the club because I was interested to know what it is about. What we learn is very important. We are taught to wash our hands before and after we eat and after we defecate. We are also taught the importance of bathing regularly, keeping our nails short and our hair neat and our clothes clean. All these things help to prevent disease. I have four brothers and three sisters and I remind them all to wash their hands regularly. Before it was common for one of us to get sick with the vomiting, but now it is much better. I feel much healthier. We have a latrine at school. One for the boys and one for the girls. At home we do not have one yet, so we have to go to the bush. It is not as healthy.”

8. Start their own business

WaterAid/ Nyani Quarmyne/ Panos

In Ghana, now that Vida has a safe water source close to home, she is free to build her business making and selling tie-dye fabrics. She is able to devote more time to her business and to caring for her family, as she no longer has to walk a long distance to get water every day.

The capacity and need to have women engaging in up-and-coming fields is certainly there. And if women were to spend less time collecting water and more time learning about and building their own businesses, they could be hugely successful and even contribute to the economy.

9. Stand up for women’s safety and rights

WaterAid/ Nyani Quarmyne/ Panos

Bashona Sharkar is part of a group that was involved in lobbying the government to get permission to build the water system. She mobilized the community, got training from DSK/WA, and was part of the group that put the application together. “In our committee there are 15 members; six are male and nine are female. I think that the women in this committee, they’re more effective and they can better talk to the other people. Now we can know we can learn everything, we can fix many problems and we can take many steps towards what we have to do.”

“Now the women are accepted everywhere, I know from my personal experience that when I was a housewife most of the people didn’t know me, didn’t obey me and didn’t respect me. Now, they respect me and they’re listening very consciously to what I’m saying and they’re trying to obey my orders. When I leave them they try to cooperate with me. I think every woman should try to get their rights and know what they want and what they need. I think it’s really very helpful to be CBA committee member as a woman—I am very proud of it.”

As gender roles shift and women are no longer classified as simply home makers, women have taken on higher positions in their communities and governments. They are able to stand up for their rights and make changes within their communities. When women have more time to devote to change making, they are capable of greater overall change.

“I think it’s important for the community to get involved in projects like this instead of the NGOs doing it all. I think by involving us we can learn lots of things. Before the training I received for being part of this project I didn’t know how to manage people or myself. I think by involving the community we can develop our own lives and community ourselves. If we’re involved we can improve our own lives and our facilities.”

10. Have some fun!

WaterAid/ Nyani Quarmyne/ Panos

Arguably the most important thing on our list; the time spent collecting water is valuable time that could be spent having fun. Whether it’s relaxing with family and friend, playing with their kids, reading a new book, or playing games with friends, women and girls must take the time to have some fun on a regular basis! What could be better for the soul?

If you agree that girls and women deserve to do more with their time, add your voice to our new campaign with Eva, a 15-year-old girl from Tanzania who’s asking her government to provide her school with clean water!