15 June 2005

A new initiative called "Women Leaders for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for all", championed by two women Ministers, each representing the North and South, was launched at the United Nations last April during the 13th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-13).

The co-conveners, Ms. Hilde F. Johnson, Norwegian Minister for International Development and Uganda's Minister of Water, Ms. Maria Mutagamba, made the announcement at a dialogue featuring 12 other leaders at the "WASH Roundtable: Mobilizing Women Leaders for the Millennium Development Goals."

Comprising Ministers of Water and Environment, senior officials from UN agencies and representatives of non-governmental organizations, the women leaders are convinced that urgent actions need to place at all levels, in order to speed up the efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that aim to cut by half the billions of people without access to safe water and sanitation by 2015. At present, some 1.1 billion people are without access to safe water and 2.6 billion have no access to basic sanitation. As a result, some 4,500 children are dying daily from preventable water-borne diseases and other illnesses that are attributed to the lack of sanitary facilities and knowledge of proper hygiene.

"Women are generally far more severely affected than men are by inadequate provision of water, sanitation and health care," said Minister Johnson. "We, therefore, have to act in a gender-conscious way to ensure access to safe water and sanitation, and we have to approach this task in a way that guarantees local community ownership because that has proved to be most effective in terms of improving women's lives."

Minister Mutagamba, who also chairs the African Ministers Council of Water, welcomed the initiative which has also been embraced by all the members of AMCOW. "Women Leaders for WASH" will lobby for more priority and budget allocation for sanitation and hygiene, which have not received as much attention as water on the part of governments and the international community. "We won't make it a secret campaign," said the Minister.

In her opening remarks at the roundtable, WASH advocate Mrs. Nane Annan told participants that young children, student groups and school sanitation clubs appear to have little voice and are so often forgotten. And that is a paradox," she said. "Water and sanitation, despite being our most pressing needs as human beings, equal for all, are not headline news or pop star glam," she said. Stating that she remains "a proud WASH supporter," Mrs. Annan said that "it is so important to mobilize women leaders to ensure that women are empowered at all levels from the community to technical, managerial, policy and leadership roles."

For her part, the Hon. Ms. Buyelwa Sonjica, Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) of South Africa spoke of the gender-sensitive approaches in all of their water and sanitation programmes. Each year, "Women and Water Awards" are given to outstanding women from different fields such as research, management policy, communications, community work and other areas; and DWAF engages in women's empowerment activities, whilst at the same time developing a cadre of 'women champions."

This year's Stockholm Water Prize winner Ms. Sunita Narain, Executive Director of the Centre for Science and Environment, India, challenged the meeting by saying that "the approach of building hardware is not going to solve the water and sanitation dilemma: the technology of the future is the technology that can put this in the hands of the people," she said. "The paradigm has to change to one of decentralization, according to Ms. Narain. "We can't only plan for women, we have to make sure that the plan is in her hands, and we need to build a literacy movement in water and sanitation; because the most literate in the world are those who are the most illiterate on water and sanitation issues," she added.

Ms. Mamphono Khaketla, Minister of Natural Resources of Lesotho began her intervention by saying: "You can be healthy today, sick tomorrow; you can be rich today and poor tomorrow, but if you are educated today, you will still be educated tomorrow, and no one can take away your education." In Lesotho, girls are encouraged to remain in school and there is a law ensuring that 30% of the seats in local elections should go to women, including grassroots women," she told participants.

Colombian Vice-Minister of Environment, Ms. Carmen Arevalo-Correa, spoke about the importance of indigenous groups. "In this regard, a pilot project has been set up involving indigenous populations in the Amazon region focusing on appropriate sanitation and hygiene promotion programmes that are adapted to the groups' own cultural patterns and languages," she said.

The Executive Director of UN-Habitat, Ms. Anna K. Tibaijuka spoke of her personal experience and recounted that at her primary school in Tanzania, they had a latrine for girls, "but it was so dirty that no one wanted to use it." So, merely providing toilets is not the issue. "There is a hygiene and sanitation culture, and it is important for CSD-13 to make this connection," she noted.

Dr. Kerstin Leitner, Assistant Director-General of WHO's Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments Cluster, recalled that 200 years ago water, sanitation and hygiene had been a starting point for public health. "In Europe in the 19th century, one of the best ways to improve public health was to install sewage systems," she said. "It is not a question of lack of knowledge, not a question of lack of technologies, or even a lack of resources," she stressed, "it is a lack of leadership. Women provide leadership in the family, community, national and global levels," and when there is political will, as shown in the recent response to the tsunami disaster, "water-borne diseases and epidemics can be avoided," said Dr. Leitner.

Ms. Rima Salah, UNICEF's Deputy Executive Director, warned that "while all children need good schools that are clean and hygienic, the lack of hygiene facilities in schools has a stronger negative impact on girls than on boys. Girls need safe, clean, separate and private sanitation facilities in their schools," she emphasized. UNICEF estimates "that less than 50% of primary schools have adequate and separate facilities for girls and boys, and that is a very conservative estimate," according to Ms. Salah. Three other leaders, the Hon. Penelope Beckles, Minister of Environment of Trinidad and Tobago, Ms. Martha Karua, Minister for Water Resources and Management of Kenya, and Ms. June Zeitlin, Executive Director of WEDO, also made interventions.

The dialogue and Interactive discussions with conference participants concluded that:

  • Alternative technologies are important, for instance, ecological toilets; the big and expensive solutions of the 1980s need to be replaced with solutions that work for the local communities

  • Financing and its decentralization, micro-credits and ways of allocating more funds to local governments to reach the local communities

  • How women can make latrines a business, how they can get involved and run the business themselves

  • Monitoring, knowing what's going on, how the money is being spent

  • Sanitation needs a home and a focus; as it is today, it is dispersed in different parts of governments, with no one seemingly responsible for it.

Mr. Gourisankar Ghosh, Executive Director of the WSSCC, called on the Ministers and other leaders to take the messages home to their respective countries and to promote the cause during celebrations of "Sanitation Week" immediately preceding World Water Day (22 March) each year. "Women Leaders for WASH" will include not only politicians but also representatives of culture and entertainment, the media and other leaders from civil society. The initiative is supported by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), a UN-supported multi-stakeholder organization that is based at WHO in Geneva, Switzerland. WSSCC launched its WASH campaign in December 2001, to raise public awareness and mobilize political support for the sanitation target to compliment the existing MDG on water at the Johannesburg Summit in 2002.

By: Eirah Gorre-Dale, Special Representative of the WSSCC to the UN, WHO Office, United Nations