Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A woman's burden

The postcard image of a woman balancing a water jug on her head might at first seem exotic and mysterious, but in reality it is anything but.

In many developing nations, the burden of insufficient water often falls — literally — on the shoulders of women. According to speakers at a Tuesday morning session on water and women’s health, collecting and managing a household’s water supply puts women at risk for a host of illnesses and injuries, including head and back injuries related to carrying the 40-pound jugs on their heads.

Fetching heavy loads of water also puts women at risk of encountering violence and abuse at the water source, being involved in pedestrian road fatalities, sustaining injuries from falling, developing pregnancy complications and losing opportunities related to education and employment. In one study, women in India even said the heavy jugs wore off their hair.

In more than two dozen developing countries, collecting water is predominantly a woman’s responsibility, said presenter Gopal Sankaran of West Chester University of Pennsylvania, who noted that it takes about three hours a day to collect enough water to meet the drinking, cooking and basic hygiene needs of a family of six. Fetching the water requires women to carry the jugs over mountainous terrain, and once home, the water is often allocated first to the men in the household, even to the exclusion of infants and children.

In many developing nations, children start carrying water at an early age, said fellow presenter Padmini Murthy, of New York Medical College School of Public Health and who's also covering the APHA Annual Meeting on Medscape's public health blog.

“They start training the girls at about age 4, and will start with a little bowl of water and work up,” Murthy said, noting that the age at which water-carrying begins varies by region.

“Immediate gains from nearby access to safe drinking water will result in improvement in women’s health and reduced women’s workload,” said Susan Sorenson of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

— T.D.J.

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