For Many Women, Clean Water Means Safety, Freedom

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development, an agreement was reached to promote clean water and sanitation facilities throughout developing nations, a pact that could have a profound impact on women's lives.

new water meters

JOHANNESBURG (WOMENSENEWS)-For Betty Sgawuka, water is life, but it's also backbreaking work. As a young child, she rambled after her mother with a small bucket; half a century later, now a grandmother several times over, she still makes multiple trips a day to a nearby stream.

Much has come to Sgawuka's village during her 54 years: apartheid, freedom, AIDS. But eight years after South Africa's first free, multi-racial elections, the only water that flows through Luphisi is the stream that nature put there.

Earlier this week, more than 100 world leaders met in Johannesburg for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. At the top on the agenda during the 10-day meeting were clean water and sanitation and how they could be brought to places like Luphisi. At the end of the summit Wednesday, leaders reiterated their commitment to halve the number of people without water by 2015, and set a new goal to try to halve the number of people without access to sanitation by the same year. Hundreds of millions of dollars from the developing world were also pledged to the effort.

More than 1 billion people around the world lack access to clean water and another 2 billion to sanitation. Waterborne diseases are estimated to kill more than a million adults annually and enough children to fill a jumbo jet each day.

Women Often Spend One-Third of Their Lives Fetching Water

But for millions of women like Sgawuka, clean water and access to sanitation also mean increased freedom and dignity.

"It's women and girls who bear the brunt of the lack of clean water; it's women and girls who are intimidated and humiliated by the lack of sanitation," said Sir Richard Jolly, head of a new United Nations campaign called WASH-Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for All, speaking in Johannesburg. "Remember, the amount of water the African or Asian carries on her head is roughly equivalent to the amount of luggage most of us will bring home from Johannesburg, roughly 20 kg."

In most of the world, it is a woman's job to collect water for cooking, cleaning, drinking and sanitation. Girls often begin collecting water from a very young age and because the burden of collecting water is often so onerous, many are forced to drop out of school.

"The provision of clean water is particularly important because it has a liberating effect on women and young girls," said Kul Gautam, deputy executive director of UNICEF. "In many rural areas, the average woman spends one-quarter to one-third of her time fetching water."

Gautam also said UNICEF studies have shown that lack of water and sanitation are major factors leading to the high dropout rates of girls. In addition to the girls who drop out because their labor is needed at home, many girls also leave school because of inadequate sanitation at schools themselves.

Sanitation, say aid workers and government officials, is often the neglected sister of clean water. Here in South Africa, where 7 million people have been provided with clean water since 1994, the need for better sanitation was ignored.

"Ten years ago when we surveyed people about their priorities, water came up No. 2 behind jobs," said Mike Muller, director general of the South African Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. "Sanitation wasn't even on the list."

But two years ago, a deadly cholera epidemic broke out in the largely rural, northeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. Since then, the South African government has redoubled its efforts on sanitation.

Trek to Community Latrines too Hazardous at Night

For women, however, sanitation is also a matter of respect, dignity and safety.

"Many of us in the aid industry thought that clean water was about better health and eliminating waterborne diseases," Jolly said. "But increasingly we're realizing that for women, often it's a safety issue."

About 200 miles away from Luphisi, in the rough shantytown of Kapok outside of Johannesburg, more than a dozen families share a single chemical latrine. Serviced by the city's water authority, the latrines are clean and sanitary.

At night, however, even a short walk from shack to toilet can be a dangerous proposition. South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, and many of them take place in communities like this one.

Johannesburg Water, the city's state-owned but privately run water authority, is installing private latrines for each household.

Chantal Mofokeng says it's a small thing that makes a big difference.

"I used to wait rather than go to the toilet in the night," she said. "It wasn't safe."

Also on the agenda at the World Summit was the need to involve more women in the decision-making surrounding water. Much of the talk here in Johannesburg was about partnerships, but in the area of water few women are included.

"We believe that women must play an active role in the solutions on the ground," said Gugu Moloi, chief executive of Umgeni Water in South Africa, who is the only female director of a water utility in Southern Africa. "Women need to move not just from being the consumers of water, but to the political level where they can influence the distribution and implementation of water as well."

Nicole Itano is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg.

For more information:

Johannesburg Summit 2002
Summit on Sustainable Development:

World Summit Water Dome:

Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council
Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for All campaign:

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Famine Looming, Zambia Refuses Genetically Modified Food

LUSAKA, Zambia (WOMENSENEWS)-Despite a looming famine, the government here is refusing to accept emergency food donated by the United States because it is genetically modified.

Relief Maize

Some 14 million people are without food in Southern Africa, according to the World Health Organization, and women are disproportionately affected. As many as 300,000 people in the region could die from preventable diseases over the next six months if hunger and malnutrition are not addressed, the agency said last week as it urged governments to accept the aid.

While Zambia is the only Southern African country that has officially announced its rejection of genetically modified foods, other governments in the region have not yet decided whether to accept such aid. At least two countries, Malawi and Zimbabwe, have accepted the offer.

The maize was supposed to be distributed in June to hunger-stricken areas where Zambians are barely surviving. Drought and floods during the last farming season produced poor crop yields, resulting in a food crisis that now affects 2.3 million people in Zambia-more than one-fifth of the country's total population.

Government spokesman Newstead Zimba insists that the decision to reject the maize will safeguard the health of Zambians and protect the environment.

"My government is, however, making frantic efforts to import non-GM maize," Zimba said.


The controversy surrounding the safety of these products has generated countrywide debates, with Zambian women's rights leaders coming out in full support of the government's decision to reject the American corn.

Women for Change executive director Emily Sikazwe says feeding people genetically modified food amounts to crimes against humanity.

Zambian scientists, she says, should not fall prey to the uncertainty surrounding genetic engineering.

Others have suggested that the Zambian government should follow the lead of its neighbor, Zimbabwe, which has accepted the maize on the condition that it be milled at the point of entry. Although milling does not change the corn's genetic modification, proponents say it protects the environment because no seeds are planted.

-Carlyn Hambuba WEnews correspondent.