A study showed a 12% increase in school attendance when water was available within 15 minutes compared to more than half an hour away. (Photo/UNICEF).

Water Is Life, But Also Kills Women’s Dreams: The Shame of Africa’s ‘Gender Penalty’

WATER is indeed life – but it’s complicated.

“African women are breaking their backs to get water for their families”, declared an early June headline in the Washington Post.

“Four years after the United Nations announced that it cut the number of people without access to cleaner water by half, getting to that water is still a major hardship for much of sub-Saharan Africa,” it reported, citing a new analysis by American academics.

The crisis of water and sanitation combines with gender discrimination to disadvantage women in poor regions like Africa in outrageous ways, as a recent UNICEF report illustrated starkly.

Africa women and girls are the main providers of household water supply and sanitation, and also have the primary responsibility for maintaining a clean home environment.

The lack of access to safe water and sanitation facilities therefore affects women and girls most acutely.


About 157 million people in the Eastern and Southern Africa region are not connected to a clean and safe water distribution system, and thus need to use external water sources. Around 247 million people have no access to improved sanitation.

In countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, well over 50% of the population has to practise open defecation. Poor water and sanitation, as well as unsafe hygiene practices are the main causes of diarrhoea, one of the main child killers in the region.

Each year more than 250,000 children under the age of five die from diarrhoeal diseases.

  • The burden of fetching drinking water from outdoor sources falls disproportionately on girls and women. In several countries in the region (Lesotho, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Kenya and Ethiopia) collecting water takes longer than 30 minutes for more than a quarter of the population. This considerably reduces the time women and girls have available for other activities such as childcare, income generation and school attendance.
  • 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.

A study in Tanzania showed a 12% increase in school attendance when water was available within 15 minutes compared to more than half an hour away. When girls enter puberty they are often forced to skip classes or drop out of school, because there are no separate toilets for them which guarantee a minimum of privacy.


Lack of separate and decent sanitation and washing facilities discourages girls who are menstruating from attending full time, often adding up to a significant proportion of school days missed.

  • HIV and AIDS: The absence of clean water and sanitation also increases the risk of opportunistic infections and diarrhoeal diseases among people living with HIV and AIDS. In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls account for 60% of all HIV infections. In many cases, they are also the caregivers of chronically sick family members. With better access to water and sanitation facilities, the burden on households caring for AIDS-affected members is reduced.
  • Protection: Without access to latrines, many women and girls become “prisoners of daylight”, only daring to relieve themselves under the cover of darkness. Night-time trips to fields or roadsides, however, can put them at risk of physical attack and sexual violence. According to a 2010 Amnesty International report, a high number of women in slum areas in Kenya are raped when they resort to open defecation because they have no private sanitation facilities at home.
  • Women’s empowerment: While women often have the primary responsibility for the management of household water supply, they are rarely consulted or involved in the planning and management of this vital resource. In sub-Saharan Africa, women produce up to 80% of basic foodstuffs, yet they have the least access to the means of production.

There is evidence to show that water and sanitation services are generally more effective if women take an active role in the various stages involved in setting them up, from design to planning, through to the ongoing operations and maintenance procedures required to make any initiative sustainable. A World Bank evaluation of 122 water projects found that the effectiveness of a project was six to seven times higher where women were involved than where they were not.

What would be the ultimate hack in Africa? Water and sanitation.



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