The Blog

Inspiring Change for Women With Water and Toilets

On this International Women's Day, we are talking about inspiring change. We are looking to challenge the status quo, and that includes the ability to get to a toilet.

On this International Women's Day, we are talking about inspiring change.

We are looking to challenge the status quo, and that includes the ability to get to a toilet.

It's hard to imagine, but this is an issue that affects one in three women in this world.

How would you manage if your school, your workplace, even your home did not have a private toilet?

Worse, what would you do when you have your period?

It's hard to talk about but water and sanitation is a basic right for us all. And it affects us as women more because of the way we're made.

It's not just about washing, cleaning, cooking and drinking. Water and sanitation are essential to women's social and economic development.

Dignity and safety

They contribute to gender equality. Something as simple as a bucket of clear, clean water or a toilet can bring about huge changes in the lives of women, no matter where they are in the world.

Water, sanitation and hygiene are vital for health. We need safe water, sanitation and hygiene to survive our pregnancies, to give birth to healthy children and to ensure we and our families stay healthy over time.

They are vital for our dignity and safety. If we don't have anywhere to go to the toilet, or if toilets and water points are unsafe, this puts us in a vulnerable situation, exposed to shame, embarrassment and even violence.

They are vital for our education. How can our children learn if they are thirsty and there is no water to drink and nowhere to go to the toilet? It is especially worse when we have our periods. Sometimes girls even drop out of school when there are inadequate menstrual hygiene facilities.

Finally, they are vital for our work and better livelihoods. If we don't have to waste hours walking for water, or to find a place to safely defecate; if we don't have to spend hours caring for our sick children, we could spend more time investing in our own futures through earning a living and being more economically independent.

A woman makes the long walk home with buckets of unsafe water in Madagascar. Photo credit: Ernest Randriarimalala, WaterAid

None of these things really affect us here in the UK. We can get water or a toilet whenever and wherever we need it.

But late last year I was reviewing work by my organisation, WaterAid, in a small town called Itahari in Nepal. Small towns are an increasingly common conundrum for developing countries. Neither rural nor urban, they are rapidly developing yet commonly ignored in national politics.

WaterAid works in these areas to fulfil our vision of a world where everyone has access to water and sanitation. Such small towns are part of this 'everyone.' Here I met the women in the Sangini savings and credit group. Supported by a local NGO, these women came together to work on issues that were really important to them including water, sanitation and hygiene.

Through the group, they sought loans for projects ranging from the construction of toilets and water points to buying small grill shops and vegetables. Many of these projects helped them to earn a living.


But for them what was most important was their new sense of empowerment. They explained that coming together as this group had empowered them to speak out. They had confidence to leave their houses. There were no more taboos about periods and menstruation.

They told me they had more time for productive work, whether it was agricultural or in an office. Some of them were earning an income. Finally, they even felt strong enough to go to the municipality to demand other services.

Water, sanitation and hygiene play a huge role in enabling women to realise their potential.

Organisations like WaterAid need to work together to make this a development priority. This weekend I will speak at the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre about these challenges, and walk with women's rights activist Helen Pankhurst at the Walk in her Shoes in support of this cause.

We have a great opportunity to ensure water and sanitation are central in the post-2015 debates, which will shape new UN Sustainable Development Goals for lifting people out of poverty, which will take over where the Millennium Development Goals left off.

We also need to lobby for a specific goal on women and girls, there and in the next round of the UN Commission on the Status of Women debates.

Together we can inspire change for women, through ensuring all of them, everywhere have equitable and sustainable access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene.