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Water and Women’s Disempowerment

Global Grassroots works with several teams of change agents here in Rwanda who fight for women’s rights, security, and health with one crucial tool: providing safe, closer access to clean water.

The relationship between clean water and health is straightforward, considering the multitude of water-borne diseases found in much of the world.  The impact of a safe, closer access point on women’s security is equally clear when one remembers the dark, early morning hours that women spend in the process of collection and when one listens to stories of sexual assault faced on this journey.  But the link between water scarcity and women’s disempowerment is even more fundamental.  Perhaps that is precisely why it is so often overlooked.

Water is humanity’s most essential need, and access to safe water is one of the greatest challenges faced by the developing world.  In many societies, the consuming struggle to provide, every day, a community’s primary life need – water – falls to the female sex.  The result is gender imbalance on a massive scale.  When a community saddles one gender with a tremendous burden that is both laborious and domestic, those two adjectives come to define how both men and women perceive a woman’s sphere and duty.  That discrimination is pervasive; it disempowers women as citizens and as individual minds.

When the task of water provision is perceived by women and men as a female responsibility, that assumption defines gender roles in a community.  Water is a part of everything domestic: drinking, bathing, cooking vegetables and grains, growing gardens that prevent malnutrition disorders in children, washing clothes, keeping a home clean, and preventing disease.  A woman who chooses to attend an evening local council meeting “should” be walking hours down the mountain to a stream with her female neighbors to provide for her family.  Water “should” be the first thing on her mind when she wakes up and when she goes to sleep.  Water is what she must worry about when she considers her children’s health or her relationship with her husband, who may strike her if he comes home to a late or uncooked meal, unwashed clothes, or empty jerry cans when he wanted a bath.  In theory, therefore, a woman’s role is defined as domestic.  But her domestic role is not only the result of theoretical conceptions of duty; it is also established by example.  It is difficult for her and for her community to be open to women’s civil participation or partnership in decision-making when, in practice, she has always needed to spend six hours a day fetching water.

Water can never be plentiful enough, which means that a woman’s responsibilities are by definition never completed.  Her time is, without exception, never truly her own.  Her participation in development, in community affairs, or in building or re-building outside of her individual home, is therefore impossible.  She is disempowered by her community’s greatest act of discrimination: the designation of its most essential daily struggle to the female sex.

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