Why is Water So Important to Gender Equality? Just ask Vivian Onano.
Investing in safe water for all saves lives and livelihoods, but it also has particular significance for girls and women. In honor of World Water Week taking place right now, Women Deliver spoke with Vivian Onano, a Women Deliver Young Leader and WaterAid's new Global Youth Ambassador to discuss how water and sanitation for health (WASH) are critical to achieving gender equality and improving the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women.
Women Deliver: How is access to clean water and sanitation essential to achieving gender equality?
Vivian Onano: I think clean water and sanitation ties a lot when we talk about gender equality: confidence, leadership, access to education, health for women and girls. When you tie it to education, the number of hours that girls spend in the morning trying to look for water before they go to school, there is a vast disadvantage over the boy child.
I was raised by my grandmother, and I remember in the village, I came up with my own excuse: "Oh, my neck has a problem so I can’t carry water!" But I used to see my other cousins wake up in the morning, go to the lake, fetch water, come back, wash utensils, start the fire before they can even dress and go to school. And that is a disadvantage because by the time you get to school, you’re already tired and you’re supposed to compete with other students at the same level.
Another issue is a lack of private toilets. Girls drop out of school due to lack of private toilets. Fortunate enough, I went to school with toilets for girls and toilets for boys. But in nearby schools, you had to look for farms for somewhere to hide and help yourself. This is a risk because during the harvesting season, many rapists hide in these farms because the corn has risen and it’s easier to hide in these fields. It poses a security risk to the girl child.
These are issues that really need to be addressed when it comes to clean water and sanitation, mostly for the girl child and mostly in rural communities.
Women Deliver: One of the key issues you talk about is menstruation. How does this issue intersect with clean water and sanitation?
Vivian Onano: If you come from the local communities where there’s no access to clean water, and you’re going through your period, you’re either using a cotton roll or a piece of cloth that you have to clean and reuse it again. If you don’t have clean water, then it means that it’s going to pose a health risk to you because you have to keep using a dirty piece of cloth that could lead to vaginal infection, but also the body odor leads to low self-esteem. You don’t want to be around people, which takes sway your confidence and leads to girls dropping out of school.
It’s actually one of the main reasons why I am really excited for my role with WaterAid because I think menstruation is an issue that people still don’t want to talk about. I’m a woman and there are so many other young girls I’ve seen suffer and struggle with menstruation and lose their confidence and self-esteem as a result of that. This is a biological cycle. Why should it be a way of shaming women? A way of shaming girls? A way of girls losing their confidence, when they should be actually proud that they’re going through that stage in their life?
"Access to clean water is a basic human right, and everybody should have access. Water is life, as we all know."
Women Deliver: How did you get to become the WaterAid Global Youth Ambassador and what does it feel like?
Vivian Onano: I’m still trying to internalize it! When they announced it and my friends were like, “Oh my God, I’m so proud of you! I can’t believe this! How does it feel for you?” and I’m still trying to internalize it because it’s an honor. It’s the first time they’re having a youth ambassador, but also this is not the first time I’ve engaged with WaterAid. I’ve been engaging with them since I was a sophomore in college.
Women Deliver: What is one way that we can actually begin to solve this huge problem?
Vivian Onano: First and foremost, I’m still going to go back to my community center. Everybody has to be involved. It cannot just be WaterAid in America trying to come and solve a problem in Kenya through their office in America. That’s impossible. We have to find a way of working with local communities, so we’re trying to address the issue of WASH, but we’re also trying to address the role of women and girls in our society and giving them equal access, just as the boy child. Engaging the local community is going to be the way forward, and WaterAid has taken a bold stance in engaging local communities in trying to address the issues around WASH.
Access to clean water is a basic human right, and everybody should have access. Water is life, as we all know.