http://www.pambazuka.org/images/articles/379/48637pots.jpgThis year's African Union Summit, 24th June to 1st July 2008, will be on ‘Meeting the Millennium Development Goals on Water and Sanitation’. What should African leaders take into account when thinking about how to meet these goals and those of The African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa? Catherine I...read more
http://www.pambazuka.org/images/articles/379/48637pots.jpgThis year's African Union Summit, 24th June to 1st July 2008, will be on ‘Meeting the Millennium Development Goals on Water and Sanitation’. What should African leaders take into account when thinking about how to meet these goals and those of The African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa? Catherine Irura tackes this question.
The African Union Summit is here with us again and on 24th June to 1st July 2008, African leaders will be discussing ‘Meeting the Millennium Development Goals on Water and Sanitation’. As our leaders deliberate on this very important topic we must ask ourselves whether our leaders will take into consideration women’s concerns over water and sanitation and remind them that women amount to almost more than half of the population in Africa and that their voices must not be ignored. In this article we voice some of the concerns that women would like their leaders to take into consideration as they debate on this issue.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) goal number 7 calls on governments to ensure environmental sustainability. The goal is to reduce the proportion of the people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and states as an indicator the proportion of the population using improved drinking water sources and using improved sanitation facilities. . Whereas the MDG’s voices the promise to alleviate poverty from the world it is not legally binding on Governments but instead forms the minimum standards for which all countries in the world should aim to achieve. As a result many countries have continuously used the MDG’s as a standard for their policy and planning processes. The MDG’s as goal 3 also call on governments to promote gender equality and empower women at all levels including in decision making and policy formation.
The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa substantially addresses issues and challenges that women face everyday including those relating to water and sanitation. State parties are required to ensure that women have access to clean drinking water  and it further advocates for women’s access and control over productive resources and most importantly participation of women in conceptualization, decision-making, implementation and evaluation of development policies and programmes . This is a home grown instrument that was adopted by the African Union to benefit women in Africa. The Millennium Development goals and the protocol therefore merge in buttressing the place of women in sustainable development, and their incorporation in planning procedures .
Water and sanitation is critical to environmental sustainability while sanitation refers to interventions to reduce people’s exposure to disease by providing a clean environment in which to live by taking measures involving both provision of facilities and behaviors which work together to form a hygienic environment . There are various uses of water such as for food, sanitation, personal hygiene, care of the sick, crop irrigation and for the care of domestic livestock and poultry. Women in Africa in an effort to ensure that their families and livestock are well taken care of will walk 10–15 kilometers to get water and carry up to up to 15 litres of water per trip  yet their significant role in water and sanitation is constantly overlooked. Women are direct users, providers and managers of water in households and they are guardians of household hygiene . This should be the basis upon which women should be fully involved in public decision making with regard to water resources. Improvement of the quality, quantity and access to clean water liberates women and young girls freeing up their time to engage in income generating activities, education and public life.
States’ failure to uphold the right to water for all infringes on the rights of women as household caretakers because they have to go the extra mile to gain access to water, which is a basic right . In lower income rural areas, women have to use lower quality water which makes the household susceptible to waterborne diseases  which in turn drains the limited household resources due to the medical expenses incurred. The unavailability of clean water then becomes burdensome for women reducing the quality of life as they have to forgo other rights to gain basic necessities.
Women usually have no rights and/or access to land for varying legal and cultural reasons yet they are the majority of the world’s agricultural producers, playing important roles in farming, fisheries, forestry and farming. They are the least title holders among the property holders in the world . For example in Kenya, customary law generally limits ownership of land and only entitles access to communal land so long as a woman is married. Legislative provisions may be gender neutral but the application of land law is gendered . Most land is registered in the name of the eldest male of a household. This not only excludes women from the registration process but further predicates the rights to use land to the rights of the male title holder.
Additionally, there is little incentive for women to make environmentally sound decisions and their lack of access to credit (of which land may be required as security) hampers them from buying technologies and inputs that would be less damaging to natural resources. As providers, their willingness to eke out a bare existence despite access to agricultural resources and education on viable methods of farming may make them adapt to less labour-intensive crops and practices that may harm the environment  and drain the water resources. These factors may lead to declining productivity and increased environmental degradation. Recognition of women as land holders and contributors to development would motivate them to protect the environment and desire to realize the full value of land in agricultural production.
Women are also increasingly becoming heads of households partly due to the numerous conflicts in Africa, HIV/AIDS and other existing social problems. This means that they are solely responsible for providing for their families and take part in farming activities yet they do not have the legal rights to access water and land (which are the main source of livelihood). Since many women do not own land, women and girls constantly face the threat of becoming economically unstable and dependant on their male relatives or husbands. In the eventuality of economic despair they may turn to means such as prostitution or transactional sex, or bowing to certain cultural practices such as wife inheritance that expose them to sexually transmitted diseases and other health risks.
The absence of clean water acutely increases the impact of HIV/AIDS. The causes and consequences of HIV are related to wider issues revolving around poverty, food security and water and sanitation. Bad hygienic conditions affect people living with HIV and they need more water for better health and general hygiene. This somewhat suspends household responsibilities as death takes away family members leaving destitute children and elderly people . In impoverished rural areas, where women themselves are sick and dying it means that they cannot walk long distances to get water.
It is a fact that the proximity of sanitary facilities to the household increases security and privacy for women. It also reduces health and digestive system problems that arise when women have to wait until nighttime to relieve themselves. Separate sanitation facilities for girls and boys in schools also boost the school attendance of girls and ensure a safe and healthier learning environment. For mothers and pregnant women, improved water supply sanitation and hygiene leads to better health and reduced labour burdens and reduced mortality rates for children.
Poor families cannot afford to buy sanitary towels or tampons for their women and girls to use and women use old rags, leaves, toilet paper or sometimes nothing at all. Poor sanitation heightens the awkward conditions women face during menstruation because it is difficult to concentrate knowing there is no water, proper sanitary facilities or sanitary towels to use. Students and female teachers may feign sickness during their menses to avoid going to school altogether. Given that on average a woman has her cycle 13 times and menstruates 4 days per period, that amounts to 52 days which is almost 2 months in a year. That is a considerable amount of time to miss out on learning and it negatively affects the general performance of girls in school. In Rwanda secondary school girls have even proposed for increase in tuition fees so that schools can provide sanitary towels .
It cannot be disputed that sanitary towels are basic necessities for women and promotes their sexual and reproductive health. Article 14 (1) of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa requires state parties to respect and promote and the right to sexual and reproductive health of women. Despite the separate provisions for sanitation and reproductive health, we need to recognize the relation between sanitation and sexual and reproductive health and their effect on the living conditions of women. Lack of adequate sanitation and clean water makes women susceptible to infections that affect their sexual and reproductive health. The use of materials such as old rags and other unhygienic materials cause a number of health problems for women which in turn can affect their reproductive health. Often women have no resources and even time to seek proper medical treatment and for many women in the rural areas health facilities are often located far away and are inaccessible. States must ensure that when discussing about water and sanitation they take into consideration how the lack of these two impact women and the society at large.
Careers and training areas around water supply and sanitation are dominated by men. There is a need to break the social barriers restricting the participation of women in community based forums or public consultations that influence water policies from the grassroots level. If water management is to be democratic and transparent, it should represent the needs of all, that is to say that men and women ought to have an equal say. This process needs to delineate the specific roles and needs of men and women in water management and how both can be incorporated for equal and sustainable use of resources. Some of the basic rights are intertwined, for example the rights to water and land, and a practical approach needs to be established.
During times of war and conflict, sanitation facilities in camps are generally poor and women rely on foreign aid to cater for their needs. Women are the worst hit by shortages of water and poor sanitation because they have to travel longer distances to search for water under very insecure conditions. Gender inequalities regarding political, economic status, human rights, education and health increase the risks during health hazards . There is a need for women to be integrated in the process of peace building and natural resource management.
In conclusion, despite the preponderance of various international instruments underlining the status of women in access to water supply and sanitation, more needs to be done at the enforcement level. There should be some active reflection of the substance of these laws and adjustment of procedures that hinder access of women to resources. The African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women and the United Nations Millennium Development goals have given Africa leaders standards that they can adopt to ensure that the right to water and proper sanitation is assured to all citizens and most importantly to women who are the caretakers of homes and the users of water and sanitation for the benefit of their families and society as a whole. African leaders can no longer afford to ignore the voice of women.
*Catherine Irura is a Law Student at the University of Nairobi and currently an intern with Equality Now, Africa Regional Office.
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