I've just come back from a trip to Madagascar with the charity WaterAid. I was out there as part of the To be a girl campaign to see for myself the issues that girls in particular face living without safe water or a toilet. I was expecting the week to be eye-opening but nothing could prepare me for the shock of seeing young women carrying and drinking dirty water.
Madagascar is a beautiful island off the south east coast of Africa. The people there are so friendly and joyful but there's a lot of poverty. Nearly 11 million don't have clean water to drink. This affects girls and women most as they are usually responsible for making the long walk to collect water, which is dirty and dangerous to drink. With no safe, private toilets, they have to go in the open. As well as the indignity they suffer, this puts them at risk of harassment and attack. WaterAid is working with local partners and communities to address these urgent problems and encourage the government to do more.
The first village I visited was Antohobe, a remote community in the Madagascan countryside. There I met two amazing girls called Solo and Ze. Although they are aged 13 and 12, they don't go to school. Instead, they are responsible for doing the family chores. There's no waterpoint in their village, so these tasks include walking to collect water five times a day.
When Solo and Ze took me to see their water source I was so shocked. I knew they had no access to safe water but I really wasn't expecting them to be drinking water from a dirty pond. They showed me how they filled their jerry cans in the pond and lifted them on to their heads. The full jerry cans weighed around 20kg - the same weight as my luggage. As I watched them carry this water back up the steep path I thought about how much we take for granted just turning on a tap. Solo told me, "We drink this water. It doesn't taste good at all. It makes me ill. I get stomach ache and diarrhoea."
There is a school in Antohobe but without clean water or toilets educating children is hard. A teacher told me that the students get thirsty in the hot sun and find it hard to concentrate. She showed me the school latrines which were dirty and unsafe - no place for children. She said, "Girls drop out more than boys. They have to fetch water. They drink the water and get sick. Girls have nowhere to go when they have their periods so they stay home. I'm sure if we had proper toilets with doors girls would be able to take care of themselves."
Later that week I visited Ambovokely village, where WaterAid has helped the community to install a waterpoint and safe latrines. The difference was incredible and immediately obvious. The whole atmosphere in the village was different. It's hard to describe - you could feel it. There were no flies, people were well presented and the people there were so happy. The chief told me, "Water has changed everything. Water is life. You have brought us life."
A young girl called Lisa showed me around her school nearby. It was a complete contrast to the school in Antohobe. The children there were clean, alert and so eager to learn. She took me to the school latrines that WaterAid had helped build. There were separate toilets for boys and girls, doors with locks and a shower for girls to use when they have their periods. There was a handwashing point too and Lisa showed me how she washed her hands methodically and thoroughly as she'd been taught in class.
It was amazing to see just how much difference something as basic as safe, clean water could make to girls. Being a teenager is difficult enough without having to also cope with the impacts of drinking dirty water and not having somewhere to go to the toilet or manage your period. I know now why WaterAid's work is so vital. Please support them in any way you can. Any money donated this summer will be matched by the UK government, so together we can help twice as many girls take their first steps out of poverty and grow into strong, independent women. Please visit www.tobeagirl.org to find out more.