We all understand the importance of clean water. We’re aware of its necessity in keeping our bodies healthy. Yet many of us take for granted how a clean and reliable water supply provides us with freedom and autonomy in our daily lives.

For many women and girls across the globe, a lack of access to water creates daily restrictions on their freedom, because living with insufficient or unclean water can mean foregoing education, hygiene and often their dignity. According to WaterAid, one in three women don’t have access to a decent toilet at all, meaning that over a billion women have to go to the toilet with no privacy and nowhere safe and clean to dispose of menstrual products. This is detrimental not only to their health and personal hygiene but also to their safety.

Girl pumping water from a well

Similarly, nearly a third of schools worldwide don’t have a clean water supply, affecting pupils’ access to toilets. For girls who are on their period, this can cause them to miss valuable days at school. Worse still, some girls may sacrifice their education entirely in order to travel long distances every day, to source, collect and carry water for their families.

The issue of water is wholly pervasive. It is understood that handwashing with clean water and soap prevents waterborne diseases by 40%. As a result of not having regular access to a fresh water supply, many people worldwide suffer from easily preventable illness, such as diarrhoea and respiratory illnesses. And for communities that are forced to continually consume unsafe water, they risk becoming infected with waterborne diseases such as amoebic dysentery, cholera, hepatitis and typhoid.

Woman with water

For a young woman growing up in a developing country, exposure to harmful illnesses like this can impact upon their reproductive health and later in life cause obstetric complications in pregnancy, childbirth, and post-partum. One major cause of illness for women during childbirth is contact with these waterborne diseases, transmitted by unwashed hands and dirty water used to clean up during the labour. This can cause severe illness for the labouring mother and the bacteria spread to the unborn child can be fatal.

Under ‘Sustainable Development Goal 6’, the United Nations has committed that by 2030, everyone in the world will have access to safe water. This goal can’t be achieved soon enough because, according to the World Health Organisation, a new born child dies every minute from infection caused by lack of clean water and unhygienic contamination. And the mothers of these children must suffer this loss as a result of something that is so easily preventable.

Group of children standing around a water bucket

Although the issue of water affects everyone in a community, women tend to be the hardest hit. A lack of fresh water can cause insurmountable problems for women; severely impacting their educational opportunities, reproductive rights and general health.

This is why Bread and Water for Africa UK works alongside its partners in Africa to make sure their communities have access to clean water. Through the construction of wells and water reservoirs, we are working to ensure safe water in clinics, schools and orphanages so that women and girls can focus on their education, and children aren't at risk of water-borne diseases.

A girl carries water in Moyamba, Sierra Leone

Something as simple as a source of fresh water in every community could enable women and girls to take back power over their lives. Moreover, if the UN meets its development goals, women and girls all over the world would benefit from not only improved health, but better education, safety, and reproductive freedoms too.

Saskia Edwards is a Volunteer at Bread and Water for Africa UK.

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