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(Ethiopia) Water and Women: A Gender Crisis, a Global Opportunity

You may be woman, but I can’t hear you roar. In fact, I can’t hear you at all.
Maybe it is because you don’t really have time.  No one can blame you. But maybe if you, and the hundreds of millions of women across the developing world trapped in similar situations, weren’t forced to waste hours and hours each day hiking to find and collect contaminated water for your families – just imagine what you could do.

Alemitu used to wake at 2 a.m. every morning with her neighbors.  Together, they would walk for miles in the darkness, bare feet against the rocky, rural Ethiopian terrain.  Alemitu carried a five-gallon plastic container with her, a vessel that once held chemicals but now served to carry water for her family.  Yet even when she arrived at the pond, she had to wait in line with the other women from neighboring communities to fill up.  After she finally had her turn, she would strap the 44 pounds of dirty, fetid water on her back, and hike home. This journey took five to six hours – every single day.

When she and the other members of her community received their new, safe, and nearby water source, their lives were changed forever.  A hand pump meant no more leeches in their water, no more sharing their water with livestock and other animals, no more strained back and stunted lives. For Alemitu, the pump instantly relieved her of hours of work, creating more time in her day, more energy for daily activities, and more time with her children. She finally was introduced to once remote concepts like opportunity and possibility.

The world finally seems to be awakening to the inherent power that women possess – energy and talent that is needed to address the many challenges that face our planet.  This past March – also known as International Women’s Month – President Obama said, “We will not sow the seeds for a brighter future or reap the benefits of the change we need without the full and active participation of women around the world.”  Goldman Sachs used the month to publish its landmark “Womenomics” report which found that investments in women correlates to real economic growth in developed and developing countries.

Earlier this summer, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDun headlined the August 17 issue of The New York Times Magazine with a remarkable piece, “The Women’s Crusade.” The article precursor ed the release of their new book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,”a powerful work whose title is based on the Chinese proverb that “women hold up half the sky.”  Through countless examples and bold writing, Kristof and WuDun powerfully assert that this proverb is an ideal rather than a reality.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has placed gender rights high on her agenda.  Last month, her husband explicitly prioritized the issue of “investing in girls and women” at the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative, a theme that carried through their four main topics of focus at the conference.  More recently, The Girl Effect has been getting a lot of notice on the web. It presents a short, simple, and striking word-only animation of the world’s problems solved by nothing other than – you guessed it –a girl. Finally, Oprah dedicated her recent October 1st show to this same topic, calling attention to women’s issues worldwide such as sex trafficking, forced prostitution, education, maternal mortality, and domestic violence.

Make no mistake, addressing transnational issues such as education and sex slavery are critical to enabling gender equality and tapping the remarkable capabilities of women around the world.  But there also needs to be a distinct corollary drawn between women and water. Water must make its way onto the short list of global policy priorities. Because the water crisis is truly is a women’s crisis with broad implications for all of humanity.

Take Alemitu’s story – tragically, this Sisyphean journey is repeated on a daily basis in every corner of the earth.  Whether Ethiopia or Haiti, Honduras or India, Indonesia or Egypt – the topography may differ, the culture may vary, but the struggle is the same.  Women inevitably bear the burden of collecting the water essential to sustain their families.   Now, imagine more than 200 million hours squandered every single day by women around the world, females obligated to collect water from distant, often polluted sources.  
Again, 200 million hours – every single day.  It is numbing to calculate the human toll and wasted productivity associated with this labor.  Thus, in order to begin to address any women’s issues, we must start with the basics.  Simply put, nothing is more fundamental than providing women with safe and convenient access to clean water.

Thankfully, many impressive organizations and movements are striving to raise awareness and to engage people on women’s issues, increasingly in a manner relevant to water.  CARE deserves recognition for its long-standing appreciation of the link between gender equity and water access.   The American Jewish World Service has done meaningful work in the developing world to address the water-based gender gap. also has connected the dots to demonstrate that water is, at its essence, clearly a women’s issue.  Whether through aid programs, micro-enterprise strategies or holistic social development, these NGOs and others are pioneering new models to improve women’s access to water and alleviating this chronic problem (editor’s note: the author serves on the board of

There is a lot of talk these days about “investing” and “empowering” the so-called “bottom billion.”  Yet, for all of us who want to repair the world, we must do more than talk.  Instead, we must focus our collective efforts where it matters most. Addressing the linkage between women and water is an ideal starting point.  

Indeed, for those who have had the privilege of touching the sky, we know that, when we help women access water and sanitation, we provide them with the opportunity to lead lives of productivity and power, to meet their potential, and to discover their roar.
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