When I was a teenager, I wasn’t an ideal student. My girlfriends and I would often skip class—especially gym—and sneak off to the bathroom. We would eat snacks, play with makeup and talk about boys, celebrities, or any number of non-school related topics. Now, as an adult and a woman who knows how indisputable the link between education and women’s empowerment is, I look back in shock at my teenage self’s cavalier attitude toward education. But, that’s not what this blog is about. It’s about the three other things in that class-skipping scenario that I took even more for granted: a bathroom, safe water and adequate food.
This week at the Women Deliver conference, I had the opportunity to moderate a session organized by the Aspen Institute titled Food Security, Water and SRHR: A Defining Nexus. To some, this linkage may seem like a stretch and out of context at a conference about maternal health. But as my co-panelists from WaterAID America, Food Tank USA, and The Energy Resource Institute of India made their presentations and answered audience questions, the fundamental links between water, food security and sexual and reproductive health were completely clear. The main question at the end of the session wasn’t why are we talking about these linkages, but why aren’t we talking about them more?
Women account for half the world’s population, but for over 60 percent of the world’s hungry. In times of crisis, girls and women are the first to be affected by food insecurity. Families may marry young girls as a way of coping with food insecurity when dowries take the form of livestock, putting them at risk for a number of poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes, including maternal morbidity and mortality, HIV and violence. Even without the added burden of early marriage, without proper nutrition and adequate food, women are at greater risk for pregnancy related complications and death. Malnourished mothers are more likely to have underweight children who are more likely to die before the age of five.
Like food insecurity, a lack of access to safe water and adequate sanitation puts women’s sexual and reproductive health at risk. Women and girls spend hours walking for water. In rural Africa, fetching water consumes almost 30 percent of women’s time. Not only does the time-consuming nature of this task mean girls are often forced to leave school, but the long walk for water puts women and girls at risk for sexual violence and rape. And during pregnancy, women may have to carry heavy containers of water over long distances, placing them at risk of accidents and attacks. Poor sanitation and hygiene also increases the risk of sepsis and bleeding during childbirth.
And what about that bathroom I mentioned in the beginning? I think, in fact, that there were at least six girls’ bathrooms in that school, each with several sinks and several toilets. For so many adolescent girls around the world, having just one clean, private toilet at school could help them finish their education. And for so many women around the world, a private toilet would reduce the risk of sexual violence, harassment or abuse that they face utilizing inadequate communal facilities.
All of these things—sanitation, safe water, adequate food, education, sexual and reproductive health—are basic human rights that work together to create empowered women, families and communities. As a teenager, sneaking off to the girls’ bathroom for snacks and gossip with friends, I didn’t give those rights a second thought. Hopefully in the near future, no women or girl will have to either.