By Kul Chandra Gautam
At the World Summit on Sustainable Development
Johannesburg, 4 September 2002
It has been acknowledged at this Summit that poverty is the major impediment to sustainable development. And as we know all too often poverty is transmitted from generation to generation. Breaking the inter-generational cycle of poverty is therefore a major task of sustainable development.
There are many ways to break the inter-generational transmission of poverty. I would argue that provision of water, sanitation and hygiene is a particularly powerful way to combat poverty, because of its added benefit of a liberating impact on girls and women.
As has been said, in most societies, it is almost always women, and often young girls, who carry the burden of fetching water, for cleaning homes and clothes, for washing infants and disposing household waste and children’s faeces. In many rural areas of developing countries women spend a quarter to a third of their time performing these tasks.
As this report on WASH explains in graphic detail, in arid areas of Africa and Asia, girls and women need to walk many kilometers every day carrying water in jars weighing upto 20 kgs (the normal airport allowance for check-in luggage).
This burden often prevents girls from going to school, and women from engaging in other productive activities. We are all familiar with the statistics of 1 billion people without access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion without access to basic sanitation. That is bad enough. But no statistics can adequately capture the inconvenience, the embarrassment, the humiliation, the indignity that girls and women have to suffer because of lack of privacy to relieve themselves. This is further compounded by the many water-borne diseases that prey on their health and well-being.
Achievement of the Millennium Development Goal of halving by 2015 the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and now a similar WSSD goal in sanitation, could potentially be one of the most liberating and empowering outcomes of this Summit for girls and women, and therefore for human society at large.
Action is needed on many fronts to achieve these goals – from changing individual knowledge, attitude and practices, to improving facilities in the households and communities. Of all these actions, I would like to stress the very special importance of school-based hygiene, sanitation and health education.
Most schools in developing countries lack adequate sanitary facilities. The result is that instead of being models of good sanitary practices, schools tend to be filthy places where diseases are transmitted and learning achievement is hampered due to the poor health status of students. Millions of school-age children are infected with parasites and worms which leads to malnutrition, anemia and retards their physical development and learning capacity.
Although lack of sanitary facilities and poor hygiene affect both girls and boys, these have greater negative impact on girls. In fact there is evidence to suggest that lack of sanitary facilities is one of the reasons for girls dropping out of school in higher numbers than boys.
It was with this in mind that Carol Bellamy, the Executive Director of UNICEF, in her speech to the plenary of WSSD last week called for a major global effort to ensure that in the course of this decade, every school in the world should have clean water supply and separate sanitary facilities for both girls and boys.
Needless to say that besides its own many merits from the point of view of health and dignity, if access to water, sanitation and hygiene in schools can contribute to girls’ education it will unleash a powerful force for ending the inter-generational transmission of poverty.
In study after study, girls’ education emerges as the single best investment that any society can make. An educated girl marries later. She is more likely to space her pregnancies and have smaller and healthier families. She can better protect herself from diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Her children are more likely to go to school and perform better in school. And as they become adults, they help break the inter-generational cycle of ill health, illiteracy and poverty.
For all these reasons, we at UNICEF would urge all policy makers and partners in this room and at this Summit to give a very high priority to achieve the Millennium and WSSD goals of water and sanitation, using universal access to school-based hygiene, deworming, sanitation education combined with safe drinking water in every school as a strategic approach to promote sustainable development, to create a world fit for children and women – and therefore for all of humanity.