Young women and girls carry water in Nigeria. Women and girls spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water in sub-Saharan Africa. Photo by: World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

What is the link between a bucket of water and education?

In many communities around the world, it’s up to women and girls to provide water for their homes but when a girl has to walk for miles to fetch water, she doesn’t have time to go to school or study.

Women and girls spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water in sub-Saharan Africa  equivalent to a year’s worth of labour by the entire French workforce, according to research.

But fetching water is not the only reason girls are dropping out of school.

In countries that lack adequate sanitation, open defecation is one of the main causes of diarrhea and children lose 272 million school days every year due to the disease.

But even if a girl makes it to school, she may find the toilets there are designed mainly for boys, forcing her to skip school when she starts to menstruate because of a lack of privacy.

Some countries lose more than $1 billion a year by failing to educate girls to the same level as boys so girls’ education makes perfect sense.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation about the impact access to fresh water and sanitation has on girls’ education and the importance of educating and empowering women.

What is the impact of safe water and sanitation on girls’ education?

Lack of fresh water and sanitation, hygiene in general, are one of the reasons why girls in many developing countries opt out of school. Globally, one in five girls of primary school age is not in school.

I remember when I was in Chad two years ago and I was raising the issue with the government and the president … One of the responses that I received was, “Help us solve the problem with water so that girls do not have to go and fetch water and then we will also equally solve the problem of education.”

What’s the significance of UNESCO’s partnership with the private sector?

I have developed and encouraged a lot of partnerships with the private sector, but let me mention … something that has an impact on several areas.

[When] I visited part of our project in Senegal near Dakar … we had a huge meeting with young girls, women, traditional leaders, religious leaders and local authorities, to see how our literacy project was getting on. There was huge enthusiasm about it. It has a practical impact  I would say already for thousands of women.

Through the partnership with Procter and Gamble, we have already started a big advocacy in terms of girls’ education on one side and … about menstruation and adolescent girls.

We try to do a lot of advocacy and work with governments for very sound policies in this area, which will have a more sustainable impact.

What is important is to have sustainability. It is not just about taking one school and doing something. It’s about getting governments to make respective policies and then to work at the communal level to change things.

Which regions or countries are you most concerned about and what do you hope to achieve there before 2015?

First we try to focus on the 20 least developed countries in terms of education for … both boys and girls. We try to look at everybody in terms of these 57 million children that are out of school but of course we know that the bulk of them are girls.

[But] one size doesn’t fit all: in different counties we have to work differently. We have made this global partnership for girls’ education where we work with the private sector, we have established recently the Malala Fund with Pakistan.

We try to focus on such countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan which struggle immensely with problems of girls’ education and women’s literacy overall. We just signed … the third stage of our biggest literacy programme for girls and women in Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, we will be working also with the local communities in the Swat Valley in order to change stereotypes sometimes and also to try to find proper ways of dealing with the problem. We try to tackle different challenges that exist in order to finally get a better result.

How important is it that women get directly involved in the WASH sector and what kind of impact do those efforts have on sustainability?

I think that ownership and social activism is important. I see this process as multi-targeting different objectives.

Women and girls have to have a feeling of self-consciousness about what is important. They have to know about their rights, they have to know about what is at stake, what the impact is on a long-term basis.

What we want to do is to have a global movement about girls and women’s education. It is really important they have an overall recognition of what is at stake.

It is a human right, but it is also about health, children, the sustainability of the environment, it’s about tackling climate change, it’s about competitiveness of the economies and it’s about investing in human talent and human capital.

Creating this global movement in regards to girls’ and women’s education and empowering women is already paying off. Many countries already have started very special programmes of involving women in different levels of social and economic life because they know that without doing that their competitiveness at the global level will be reduced.

And I’m speaking about middle-income countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and even some African countries that are moving very fast. Look at Rwanda, Senegal  they are really driving new policies of involving women in all the different parts of development.

There are a lot of positive things happening, we just have to leverage all this and pass the right message that will work for post the 2015 agenda.

Edited for style and republished with permission from Trust Women. Read the original article.

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