Pulitzer Center Update

For women, girls and water, it's donkey's work

Jon Sawyer, Pulitzer Center

Two weeks of briefings and field interviews on water and sanitation, first in Istanbul at the World Water Forum and then in Ethiopia, leave three indelible impressions.

The first is the outrageous simplicity, the doability, of the challenge before us. Ending the scourge that claims 1.8 million lives a year isn't a matter of high science, like finding a cure for HIV/AIDS or cancer. It is simple political will, mustering the support to provide the access to clean water and decent sanitation that is all the poorest billion among us need for a reasonable chance at healthy, productive lives.Joke

The second impression is that water and sanitation is to an extraordinary degree an issue of women and girls -- and that if educated persons in the unpoor world understood this better then surely this issue would get the focused goverment and private attention it so deserves.

The third is that the news media must do better at telling this story.

One no-nonsense Dutch woman, Joke Muylwijk, executive director of the Gender and Water Alliance, a non-profit multinational grouping of organizations, is determined to make the world see how directly these issues affect women and girls.

In developing countries around the world it is women who fetch the water. They rely on their daughters to help, keeping them out of school and thus perpetuating their unequal status for the next generation. Girls who make it to schools without decent toilets drop out, usually at the point of menstruation. Where open defecation is the rule, women and girls often wait til dusk or night to relieve themselves, in the process making them vulnerable to attacks by animals and men.

There's also the tyranny of good intentions, as in the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, an initiative jointly adopted by the world's major donor nations with the intent of giving recipient countries more say in how aid dollars get spent. The idea was to avoid top-down, centralized decisions on what best suits the development needs of individual countries.

The problemAnders is that in most countries men still set the national priorities, said Anders Berntell, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute, and in most cases that means ignoring the issues most important to women. At the Water Forum Berntell met with a group of journalists organized by Media21, a Geneva-based non-profit aimed at raising the quality of global journalism coverage. Berntell cited a recent survey in Ghana, where men by huge majorities cited transportation as the country's greatest need – and women, by equally large margins, said it was easier access to clean water. The difference: It's women, overwhelmingly, who spend their days fetching water.

Joke Muylwijk put it more bluntly, declaring that in much of the world "donkey work" is the lot of women and girls.

And as for journalists, she said, our tribe of scribblers who flit in for a day or a week, catching the merest glimpse of what this life is really like?

"You have to realize that when you see something, going on for just a little while," she told us,"you have to realize that this is going on forever and ever."