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Zimbabwe, December 2014: The burden of thirst: Rural water challenges increase inequality among women

© Richard Nyamanhindi/UNICEF2014
If millions of women who haul water long distances had a faucet by their door, whole societies could be transformed.

By Richard Nyamanhindi

Even at four in the morning she can run down the rocks to the unprotected well by starlight alone and climb the steep hill back to her village with twenty five litres of water on her head. She has made this journey three times a day for nearly all her 30 years. So has every other woman in her village of Manjolo, in Binga District of Matabeleland North Province in Zimbabwe.

Juliet Ngwenya dropped out of school when she was eight years old, in part because she had to help her mother to fetch water from an unprotected well five kilometres from their home. The water is usually dirty and unsafe to drink. But it is the only water that Juliet has ever had.

The task of fetching water defines life for Juliet. She must also help her husband grow sorghum and beans in their fields, tend to the animals, cook meals, keep the home clean and take care of their three little boys. None of these jobs is as important or as consuming as the five hours or so she spends each day fetching water.

In developing countries, people turn on a faucet and out pours abundant, clean water. Yet according to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) 2014, nearly 34 percent of households in Zimbabwe have no access to clean water, and 32 percent have no safe way to dispose of human waste – many especially in rural areas defecate in open fields or near the same rivers or shallow wells they drink from. Dirty water and lack of a toilet and proper hygiene results in waterborne diseases and in some cases death with the majority of those affected being children under the age of five.

Where clean water is scarcest, fetching it is almost always women’s work. In Binga, as in other parts of the country, a man hauls water only during the few weeks following the birth of a baby of when a woman has attended a funeral. Very young boys fetch water, but only up to the age of seven or eight.

In much of rural Africa, lack of water is at the centre of a vicious cycle of inequality. Some women in Manjolo village go to the borehole, well or river which is ever is nearer five times a day – with one or two of the trips devoted to getting water for bathing for their husbands or for making traditional beer known as ‘tototo’.

When you spend hours hauling water long distances, you measure every drop. Persuading the community to wash their hands after using a latrine is thus difficult when the water is carried over long distances. And yet sanitation and hygiene matter – proper hand-washing alone can cut diarrheal diseases by some 45 percent.

Bringing clean water close to people’s homes is key to reversing the cycle of poverty. Communities where clean water becomes accessible and plentiful are transformed. All the hours previously spent hauling water can be used to grow food, raise more animals, or start income generating activities. With access to clean water families spend less time drinking dirty water, and in return they spend less time sick or caring for loved ones stricken with waterborne diseases.

Most important, freedom from water ‘slavery’ means more girls can go to school and choose a better life. The need to fetch water for the family, or to take care of younger siblings while their mother goes to fetch water is the main reason why many girls in rural Zimbabwe and in Binga in particular do not attend school.

UNICEF with the support of the Australian and United Kingdom Governments has been working in rural Zimbabwe in an effort to tackle the job of bringing water to the most forgotten villages of Binga.

UNICEF is repairing and drilling boreholes and setting up committees in those villages to manage them. UNICEF involves the community in designing, building and maintaining the water projects. However, more still needs to be done, as most people in Binga have being slow to embrace modern sanitation and hygiene practices. According to the MICS 2014, 70 per cent of the communities in Matabeleland North are still using the bush to relieve themselves.

How would Juliet’s life be different if she never has to go to the unprotected well or river again? She says she will go to the fields more often and produce more food for her family in the process improving their nutrition and health status. She will spend more time with her sons, instead of leaving a brave little four year old in charge of his younger brothers for hours on end. Juliet dreams of a day when life will change for the better – where maybe and only maybe a metal spigot will be installed in her yard, and out of the end of which dignity will gush out. 



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