Health risks for women highlighted on World Water Day

News release

MANILA, 23 March 2010–The daily struggle to obtain clean water for their families presents women living in poverty with grave threats to their health, safety and education, the World Health Organization (WHO) said today.

In a statement to mark World Water Day, 22 March, Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, said millions of women in the Region face gruelling challenges just to access clean water. “In many cases, these hurdles trap them in a spiralling cycle of poor health,” he said.

Dr Shin highlighted some examples:

  • In most societies, it is the women and girls who are assigned the daily task of collecting, storing and handling adequate water for households—a task that is labour intensive and time consuming, and which can pose health hazards for women, such as back and neck problems from hauling heavy water containers over long distances.
  • In poor communities, time spent on water collection competes with women’s other responsibilities, such as economic activities, cooking and child care.
  • Cultural and gender norms can restrict women and girls’ access to sanitation, washing and bathing facilities. When water sources are located along roads or other public places, women often wait until night to bathe, which could place them at risk of harassment, attack or rape.
  • The time girls need to spend every day carting clean water often results in their being pulled out of school, further trapping them in a cycle of poor education, poverty and poor health.
  • Menstruating girls face difficulties in accessing facilities if they have to share them with boys, sometimes resulting in their being withdrawn from school by their families. Again, this could impact on both their health and their education.
  • Although women usually use and manage a household's water, men typically sit on water users’ committees and make the decisions on water and sanitation investment, repair and maintenance. Where men do not prioritize water and sanitation as much as women, investments in these basic services may not be made.

The challenges women face are set out in a new WHO sourcebook for health professionals, Integrating Poverty and Gender into Health Programmes: Module on Water, Sanitation and Food. “This document is an important tool in addressing the multiple constraints poverty and gender inequality impose on the ability of women to protect their health and that of their families,” said Dr Shin.

While access to improved drinking water has increased significantly in recent years in the Western Pacific Region, about 415 million people—or about 20% of the population—continue to lack access to decent water.

Inequalities between rural and urban areas in access to safe water are striking. Rural dwellers make up more than 80% of the estimated 1.1 billion people who do not have safe drinking water. Urban poor households, such as those concentrated slum settlements, are similarly disadvantaged. For example, about 40% of Metro Manila’s population obtain their water through kiosks, pushcart vendors or tanker deliveries.

For more information, please contact Ms Anjana Bhushan, Technical Officer Health in Development in WHO's Western Pacific Regional Office. Tel: (+63) 2 528-9814 Email: Editors: Integrating Poverty and Gender into Health Programmes: Module on Water, Sanitation and Food can be found by clicking on:

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