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When Drinking Turns Deadly: Water and Women's Health » Women's Courage

When Drinking Turns Deadly: Water and Women's Health

February 17th, 2011 by labrian Leave a reply »

In previous posts, I have mostly concentrated on how a lack of access to water creates a disproportional burden on women who are forced to spend long hours collecting water for their families’ needs, thus sacrificing time they could have spent on other activities — whether  as part of the paying workforce or for leisure purposes.  In this post, I will turn my focus to yet another important effect that a lack of a clean water source has on women: health and safety.

First and foremost, women who must walk long distances in order to fetch water face increased risks of sexual assault.  In fact, 82% of 500 women treated for rape over a 5 month period in South Darfur were assaulted while performing daily chores, like collecting water (1).  Furthermore, cultural barriers sometimes prevent women from defecating until after night has fallen or before dawn if there is no available latrine, which only increases the prevalence of assault.  As a side note, the extreme discomfort associated with these circumstances poses serious health risks and can sometimes even lead women to limit their food intake (2).  Cultural barriers can make it difficult for women to even broach the topic of rape in their communities, let alone suggest that men bear a larger brunt of domestic chores.  In some instances, women are even forced to sell sex in exchange for water: in Rwanda, one woman named Seraphine has worked to eliminate this kind of sexual exploitation in her village.  She describes how women are forced to make the choice between having their children stay home from school in order to help with the chores (which, given the importance of education, most women do not prefer) or buying water with their bodies from men with bicycles.  After three years, her campaign to harvest rainwater serves 800-1000 people daily in her village (3).

But security risks don’t end once women get to a water source.  Most wells are little more than makeshift holes dug steeply into the ground; when wells collapse, women and children risk death (4).  For that matter, given than jugs weigh on average 20 kg, the daily task of carrying this much weight manifests itself through spinal or pelvic pain and, sometimes, deformities (5).

All of these security risks are compounded by the fact that the paths to wells are often windy, steep, and hard to navigate, which increases the chance of tripping, spilling water, and being forced to return for more water (6).

Diseases caused by water-bourn parasites also have disproportionately negative effects on women’s health.  The current world situation is sobering: 884 million people live without access to clean drinking water, and 3.575 million people die each year from water-related diseases (7).  Unfortunately, these deaths are preventable if we were to just prioritize giving people access to a safe drinking water source.  According to one study, access to clean water alone can decrease the number of water-related deaths by 21% (8).

In cases in which women collect water from highly-polluted (often urbanized) sources, they have increased likelihood of contracting water-borne diseases, which may increase infertility and infant mortality (9).  Primarily, women bear the costs of these water-borne diseases through having to care for family members (especially children) that become sick.  These women must devote even more of their time to playing nursemaid and also risk contracting the disease themselves through interaction with the sick patient and his/her bodily fluids.  In addition, I hypothesize that because women often suffer from worse nutrition than men in developing countries (due to a culture of women taking less food and giving more to their husbands or children), women are more likely to contract these water-borne illnesses, suffer worse symptoms, and potentially die.

Water scarcity in the developing world sends a ripple effect throughout almost every aspect of women’s lives.  While the large number of negative effects on women’s rights and health can be daunting, it also holds huge potential.  Providing clean sources of water alone can clear up a myriad of problems associated with water scarcity.  In this case, we’re killing dozens of birds with one stone.


Works Cited:

1) http://www.worldvision.com.au/issues/WaterSanitationHygiene/Where_is_it_happening_/AccessCleanWater.aspx

2a) http://www.worldvision.com.au/issues/WaterSanitationHygiene/Where_is_it_happening_/AccessCleanWater.aspx

2b) http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book/companion.asp?id=31&compID=105&page=2

3) http://www.globalgrassroots.org/blog/tag/water/

4) https://www.wateraid.org/uk/what_we_do/the_need/206.asp

5) https://www.wateraid.org/uk/what_we_do/the_need/206.asp

6) https://www.wateraid.org/uk/what_we_do/the_need/206.asp

7) http://water.org/learn-about-the-water-crisis/women/
8) https://www.charitywater.org/whywater/

9) http://www.sierraclub.org/population/downloads/breaking-cycle-women-water.pdf



  1. laurah21 says:

    Wow, this post was indeed very informative. I really appreciate that you mention the down sides to some of the foreign aid provided, specifically the “makeshift” water pumps. This reminds me of the importance of assuring the sustainability of aid interventions. In this case, how can we make sure that these pumps will keepworking? are we training the people to be able to fix the pumps in case they break?

  2. sbyron says:

    Thank you for your post. Having spent the early part of my life in a village without running water and electricity, I can relate to the challenges that you discussed in your blog. Despite these challenges there are really interesting technologies that are being developed to alleviate the problems that come with contaminated water. I recently came across a new safe water innovation called Sunspring. Sunspring is a portable, self-contained, solar-powered water purification system that is being used in over 8 countries. If you want to learn more about it, here is there website:


  3. ayflores says:

    Thank you for this post– You do a great job in shedding light on the often-overlooked, serious risks that women confront when performing these duties. Gaining access to much needed resources, such as water, is a difficult process enough as it is, so it’s truly disheartening to read about other ways in which women are put at danger because of their poverty and gender status. The link between water-scarcity and rape isn’t made often enough, and I think that your post highlights this facet of the feminization of poverty. While more resources, such as more abundant water supply or well locations, seem like obvious solutions, this type of infrastructure and capacity building is challenging and a long-term process. What types of other solutions or interventions can be made to protect women now? How can we envision these solutions within cultural frameworks that assign these dangerous jobs to women?

  4. skaewert says:

    This was such an informative post. It’s truly amazing how much we take water for granted and it’s the most valuable commodity in other places. I also like how this post tied in with our class activity last week, where we brainstormed what we would do if we were in charge of reducing violence caused by women having to walk long distances for firewood/water or trading sex for food. You might be planning to address this in future posts, but I’m really curious about what water-cleaning technologies exist today that are practical for use in rural areas. I know we saw some in the video made by the Women’s Earth Alliance, but I’d like to learn more about different strategies and their feasibility.

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