Water is a Women’s Issue. Here’s Why: Eleanor Allen at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

I’d like to tell you a story about Maria. I met Maria when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I lived with her grandparents. She was three years old, used to come and visit on the weekends, smiley, pudgy, fun. She’d run up to me and hug my knees when she saw me. We spent a lot of time together. We played silly games like hide and seek, chase the chickens, and her favorite game was imitate “La Gringa.”

One Sunday, Maria came, we played, she teased me as usual, and that Thursday, she died, of diarrhea, from drinking dirty water. It was contaminated with human waste. Every day around the world, 1,500 children under the age of five die from diarrhea. That’s 500,000 children dying every year. Seven Mile High Stadiums full of children dying of diarrhea.

The day Maria died changed my life. I had learned about the tenuous balance between life and death, and what an important role that water plays, because it can tip the balance either way. I decided to dedicate my life to clean water. I work all over the world, and my organization’s mission is to bring clean water and toilets to everyone, forever. Before you came here today, you woke up, you brushed your teeth, you took a shower, because you can! You have clean water, safe water.

It’s always there; you don’t think twice about it. Twenty-five percent of the world doesn’t have access to clean water. Over 33% doesn’t have access to a toilet. This is a crisis, a global water and sanitation crisis. It affects billions of people in dire situations all over the world: men, women, children.

However, it is mostly a women’s issue because the greatest impact is on women. This is why water is a women’s issue. There are three reasons why. The first is time; the burden of time of women and girls collecting water and bringing it home. This happens in the majority of households in developing countries. Hours a day, miles a day, they go to places like creeks, and they bring it home, or maybe a community well. Better, a community tap. We call faucets taps. And they bring their babies, and they bring their daughters to carry water, too. Giselle knows what it’s like because when she brings it home, it’s clean or dirty or somewhere in between, never quite sure if they’ll get sick or they might die, like what happened to Maria.

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This is Giselle, and this is her walk for water every day in Rwanda, up this dusty, dirty road in bare feet. She walks a mile there, a mile back, in the morning, in the evening, four miles, four hours a day. And when she gets to her well, she fills up her jerrycan with water. It holds five gallons. She needs a friend to help get it on her head because it weighs 40 pounds.

40 pounds! That’s like putting a child on your head, and then she’s got to walk all the way home. It’s really heavy. We need to get water closer to where people live, ideally in their homes or in schools, just like we have it. Why should anyone have anything less? And imagine what this would do to your daughter’s education if she had to walk for water every day, day in, day out.

Kate runs our program in Malawi. She did walk for water every day. She was fortunate because she also was able to get an education. But her walk for water began at 5 and ended at 8. Every day, day in, day out, three hours a day. Today, Kate wants her daughter, Taku, and all the other girls in Malawi never to have to walk for water.

She wants them to use their heads for thinking not for carrying water. So if we can get girls like Taku to go to school and stay in school, then the dreams mothers have for their daughters, to have even better lives than their own can become a reality. Today, many mothers wish they didn’t have daughters. So carrying water is not the only thing that affects girls’ education.

The third reason why water is a women’s issue is toilets or lack thereof. Most schools in the developing countries don’t have toilets. This means that girls like Asha, when they hit puberty and get their periods, they often drop out of school because there’s no place to change their pads. So, now that we’re talking about toilets I love toilets. Let’s just be clear what we’re talking about.

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We can have flush toilets, we can have squat toilets, or imagine any pit latrine you may have used, maybe while camping. They’re all toilets. Remember, a third of the world: no toilets at all. So what do people do? They go wherever they can. Bushes in the woods and open spaces. The technical term for this is open defecation; and when it rains, all this human feces, all this poop washes into the community water supply and people go with their jugs, the scoop it up, and they take it home, and they drink it, and they cook with it. Poop! It’s what’s for dinner!

The most infuriating part of that story, for me, is that this is exactly what killed Maria. And the worst part about it is that her mother probably gave her the water because she didn’t know the consequences of her actions. I want to fast-forward to the future when no one has to die of bad water.

This is Moses. He lives in Malawi. He’s a game-changer because he knows how important toilets are. Look how proud he is of his toilet. He’s able to influence others in his community to get toilets, and this is important because I want men to get on board with the toilet movement. Men are critical to success here, really.

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