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Making Change Happen: The Women Fighting The World's Water Crisis

22/01/2017 16:09
Forest Woodward via Getty Images

WaterAid believes women are crucial to driving change across the world and is proud to invest in women's leadership - in the community-based groups where it works and in its offices around the world.

Barbara Frost has been WaterAid UK's Chief Executive for 11 years. Today, WaterAid's CEOs in America, Australia, Sweden and Canada, are all female. Here, Barbara gives advice for women and girls to reach their goals.

During my time with WaterAid, I have been struck by the true grit and determination of women who are leading their communities to a better future through access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. Women and girls are more likely to be responsible for fetching water and caring for those made sick by poor sanitation and dirty water. They are also made more vulnerable by not having a toilet in or close to their homes. They know only too well that having access to these basic services would ease their domestic burdens, but would also mean a brighter future for their families.

I've learnt so much from the women and girls in the many communities across Africa and Asia I've visited during my career - and they provide great inspiration to strive for a better world full of possibilities for everyone, not just a privileged few.

With the current feeling of uncertainty about our world, I'd urge the young women and girls of today to keep sight of what they can personally achieve and to have a big vision of what is possible. Staying positive isn't easy, but the key is to have that vision, believe in yourself, trust your instincts and be courageous - weigh up the opportunities and then take some risks.

I took a significant risk in my 30s, which proved a pivotal moment for the rest of my working life. I was working in Australia with a comfortable life and a great job, when a friend suggested I apply for the post of Country Director for Oxfam in war torn Mozambique. I applied and was offered the role. Those around me thought I was taking as rather big risk, particularly as I didn't even speak Portuguese. However I wouldn't be where I am today if I had not taken what turned out to be an amazing opportunity.

For young women setting off in your career, I'd say go with where your heart takes you as you will be far more successful if you love what you are doing. Trust your gut instinct, consider your options, take risks but don't be rash, and above all believe in yourself and be yourself. Don't conform to what you think a leader should be - there is no set style, so lead in your own way. As long as you're confident and working hard, doing the best you possibly can in a job you enjoy, listening to people and being open to ideas, then you will do a great job.

Persistent passion for your goals will keep you fired up and focused. It's vital to keep hold of that big vision, optimism and ambition for the world to be a better place, even when times are tough. There are always going to be challenges ahead.

The delivery of WaterAid's vision of water and sanitation for all is a staggering task, requiring a huge amount of political will, determination, commitment, and investment. However, during the last decade and my time at WaterAid, huge progress has been made globally. Now, nine out of 10 people have basic access to water and six out of 10 to a toilet. This could not have been achieved without some extraordinarily strong leadership and the work of committed women determined to improve the lives of their countries and communities.

The journey to bring change to their community has meant young women all over the world have needed to tackle taboos and traditions with courage. I recently met some amazing adolescent school girls in Pakistan breaking down taboos and helping their peers to manage their periods through ensuring the school had safe private toilets and a supply of sanitary products. In many parts of the world, menstruation is surrounded by myths and taboos, and so talking about the subject, even though it affects half the world's population, takes real courage.

What inspires me most about these young women is their leadership, and their courage and determination to make change happen, not just for themselves, but for their communities.

Freeing women up from the daily grind of fetching heavy loads of water, and dealing with the illness that frequently follows due to it being contaminated, does a huge amount towards gender equality. Lack of a decent toilet can lead to girls dropping out of school and limiting their opportunities to gain a good education and then employment.

For those of us living in the developed world, it's important to try and use our influence to help drive change on a bigger scale. We're encouraging governments to make clean water and decent toilets for all a priority i.e. delivering Global Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals; working with companies as they embed the Sustainable Development Goals in their businesses; partnering with other sectors and not-for-profit organisations to make water, hygiene and toilets a central issue for health, gender equality and livelihoods; and empowering communities with the skills and confidence to manage their facilities and call for their rights.

By 2030 I'd like to see a world where all women have access to water and sanitation, equal rights, equal opportunities, and are living healthy lives out of poverty, free to make choices about their part in the world. Essentially we're all made of the same stuff; we're all made of around 60% water. All of us on this planet are connected, so let's ensure we all play our part and reach our potential, because together we can make history.

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