The International Day of the Girl has been celebrated since 2012 as an optimistic day with a focus on the future. There is always a spirit, as well there should be, of envisioning what today’s girls can achieve as the leaders, entrepreneurs, researchers, and activists of tomorrow. But this time, too many girls are stuck in the long present of 2020 - and the lack of access to safe water is a huge reason.
This is a day to acknowledge that, whatever the future holds, girls are carrying burdens right now – especially in households living at the base of the economic pyramid. Some of the heaviest and most unfair of these burdens are connected to water.
Girls, and women, have a greater need for water and sanitation access than boys and men, both because of their bodies and because of the roles that so many societies construct for them. In a home without direct access to water and sanitation, water collecting can become a girl’s responsibility from a young age, and going to the bathroom can be a long journey. At least 1.25 billion women and girls have no access to a safe, private toilet, and half a billion have no toilet at all.
Right now, the situation is worse. Lockdowns around the world have made water and toilets outside the home harder to access, and even after lockdowns lift, every trip outside comes with a risk of infection. This is, among other setbacks, making life harder for girls with periods. In a Plan International survey of water professionals in 24 countries, 51 percent reported that the pandemic was harming people who menstruate by reducing access and availability of clean water to help manage periods. The problem is compounded by price hikes on pads and tampons as well as disruptions in strained healthcare services, a dangerous combination for the girls who are already the most marginalized and farthest away from access.
Lack of water and sanitation follows girls everywhere they go, every day - including this year's International Day of the Girl. It is there at home, if they are among the 40 percent of the world’s inhabitants who lack a place in the household to wash their hands with soap and running water (what should be the universal ritual of 2020 remains maddeningly inequitable). It is there at school, if and when they are allowed to return: in pre-pandemic measurements, nearly half the world’s schools had no soap-and-water handwashing facilities for students. It follows them out into the crowded streets and lonely paths where they may have to walk for hours to collect water for their entire household.
Once we acknowledge this dangerous and deeply unfair situation, there is still plenty of time for optimism on this Day of the Girl. There are sustainable answers to the global water and sanitation crisis, and recent breakthroughs in community-driven and market-based financial solutions have proven this. WaterCredit, a solution that has catalyzed $2.4 billion in capital for local financial institutions so they can offer microloans for households to invest in their own water supply and sanitation solutions, has reached 30 million people living at the base of the economic pyramid in 13 countries.
It is no coincidence that most WaterCredit borrowers are women: 88 percent worldwide, and 99 percent in the fast-growing markets of India and Bangladesh. With the capital to install a tap or toilet at home, women win back wasted hours of their lives to invest in income-generating activities, engage in their communities, and make better homes for their families. When they do this, their children benefit too – especially their daughters.
An evaluation of WaterCredit in two states in India found that water loan recipients reduced water collection times by an average of 55 minutes per round trip, while clients taking out toilet loans reduced their toilet round-trip time by 17 minutes. Girls stand to grow up without the risks of harassment and violence that come with these journeys, and without the avoidable sicknesses and school absences that they too often experience.
So by all means, let this International Day of the Girl be another day of optimism. The pandemic has not changed what girls can achieve; it just underlines the importance of what they live with right now. Safe water, a toilet, and a place to wash one’s hands at home mean the world. Investing in households’ ability to get these necessities is concrete action to help girls live better lives now, and to truly spread their wings when the long present of 2020 moves on and becomes something more.
Image credit: Gyan Shahane/Unsplash
Vedika oversees all impact efforts within Water.org and leads the team responsible for working with financial institutions, global investors, and other sector leaders to empower millions of people in need with access to safe water and sanitation. She previously served as Water.org’s Managing Director, India.