We’ve been enjoying amazing weather here in Ireland over the summer. For those of you who are not Irish, this is unusual to say the least. There has been no rain to speak of for several weeks, and some minor water restrictions have been put into place in several areas across the country.
It’s given me pause to remember that while the Irish news is reporting on “drought conditions”, many of the African communities in which the OLA Sisters work and live don’t have access to fresh, running water at all.
Here in Ireland we all know that dry spells such as we have been experiencing are unusual, the rains will return in the very near future, its the nature of Ireland.
By contrast, in Botswana severe drought has ravaged the land and destroyed 75% of planted crops this year alone. The drought continues for the second year, with no end in sight. Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest number of water-stressed countries of any other place on the planet. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, an estimated 300 million out of 800 million people who live in Africa live in a water-scarce environment.
The impact of water scarcity is particularly felt by those most vulnerable, the women and children. Because of the strong hold of patriarchy in African culture, traditional roles of hunter/gatherer are strictly adhered to, with the women having to take on the role of collecting water. In different circumstances, one could be tempted to romanticise this, seeing the feminine as the guardian of life, but the responsibility of this stewardship means that women often spend more than 60% of their time collecting water. They travel long distances with heavy loads, often with children in tow. This is a burden that is taken up by the girl-child too, as soon as she is deemed able to balance a calabash on her head.
The inordinate amount of time spent in the pursuit and collection of water means that women and female children do not have the time, much less the energy, to spend on their education, thus perpetuating the cycle of social and economic disempowerment of women.
The health toll is also enormous. Imagine walking with the burden of a 40kg container of water on your head for 6km (often more), day after day after day? The knock-on effect is far more than the obvious spinal and muscular strain. Lack of access to clean water directly impacts sanitation, leading to disease, developmental issues in early childhood, and an increase in child mortality rates. It takes a mental toll too, leading to psychological distress and reduced mental functioning.
“Water, sanitation and hygiene is a global crisis,” says Savio Carvalho, WaterAid’s global advocacy director. There’s no doubt that it is, but this crisis cannot be seen in isolation to the very real crisis of women’s rights.
As women in the western world, we’ve moved far beyond the burning of bras, and fighting for suffrage. The real violations are taking place in the everyday. The little things that we take for granted, like turning on a tap, or flushing a toilet. The real violations are impacting the women of Africa at a far more fundamental level. In our continuing struggle for recognition and validation, let us not forget those who are struggling at grass roots, where mere survival is an issue for rights of women.