Women in Water: Stewards & Agents of Change

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
National Museum of Women in the Arts
Washington, DC
June 13, 2011

Thank you, Hattie. It’s wonderful to be here with such a distinguished room of colleagues, friends, and guests. I always welcome an opportunity to visit this beautiful museum; so to be here for this important occasion, in which we are highlighting the role of women in water issues, is especially great. And we’ve had Bolivian music no less! A real treat for me.

This museum honors history’s great female artists. The work that hangs on these walls is a testament to the vision, creativity, and perseverance of women who have broken the mold, pushing the art world to new limits.

So it is in the spirit of that vision, creativity and perseverance that we honor the role of women in water. Indeed, it is a role that manifests itself in many ways:

  • the demanding task of walking for miles to gather clean drinking water for their families;
  • the important decisions of how and when to use limited supplies for agricultural production; and
  • the education of young people on the importance of sanitation—just to name a few.

In each of these roles, we know that it is the woman—the mother, daughter, sister and even grandmother—who is first to raise her hand, stand up, make the long walk, or pass on vital information to the next generation. She is the volunteer, the caregiver, the teacher, and the leader. And she needs our help.

Secretary Clinton outlined our water agenda in March of last year—on World Water Day—calling water security a global imperative for US foreign policy. And again this past Spring—on World Water Day 2011—Secretary Clinton and World Bank President Robert Zoellick signed an unprecedented MOU, connecting almost 20 US government agencies and multiple assets of the Bank. This MOU will allow us to share knowledge and expertise at the national and local levels, deepening our efficiency and creating more impact where it is needed most.

Of course, one cannot address the many water challenges we face throughout the world without first understanding the impact of those challenges on women—and subsequently their role in solving them. This is why we have made women’s issues a crucial part of every major initiative set forth in the Obama Administration, and it is particularly central to the big three: climate change, global health and food security.

Around the world, women and girls in developing countries walk an average of 6 kilometers a day (3.75 miles) carrying 20 liters (or 42 pounds) of water—often in isolated, unsafe areas, putting them in harm’s way. In some areas, the journey takes more than 15 hours a week, making it difficult for girls to go to school. Less education means fewer economic opportunities for women, which in turn hurts the local economy. And thus the cycle continues.

Whether we are talking about climate change, food security, global health, we know this: clean water is a crucial ingredient for sustainable progress on our foreign policy priorities:

  • Droughts and floods now affect more people than all other natural disasters combined.
  • Competition over scarce water is increasingly a source of tension, even conflict within and between countries.
  • Unsafe water, sanitation, and hygiene are already among the world’s top risk factors for death and disease.
  • And Climate change will only exacerbate all of these challenges.

No matter where you are in the world, it is the women who are on the front lines of these fragile environments. They are the first victims—but they are also the first responders. When provided with appropriate training and resources, women have enormous potential to devise and implement solutions to address these threats.

The key here—what we are all working towards—is creating the conditions in which women can move from their status as potential victims of water challenges and transform to becoming agents of change. So, let me briefly touch on two ways we are doing just that:

  • First, by providing better water, sanitation and hygienic conditions in schools, as well as incorporating WASH into school curricula;
  • And second, by empowering women to become productive members of their societies, especially in fields that relate to water.

First, in order to really affect systemic change, we must start young. No matter where you live—be it Boston or Bamako—schools are the foundation of strong communities.

It is a tragic irony that those who go to schools to learn, congregate, and protect their health, are often put at risk from the school environment itself. More than half of all primary schools in developing countries do not have adequate water facilities and nearly two-thirds lack adequate sanitation.

The consequences are many. To begin with, health suffers. Education also suffers. Such trends can have devastating long-term costs for students, communities and nations, virtually closing doors to opportunity.

And all along, women and girls suffer disproportionately. Female school staff and girls who have reached puberty are less likely to attend schools that lack sanitation and even more, gender specific sanitation facilities. They stop attending school. As we increasingly recognize the contribution of women to household income, health, education, and nutritional outcomes, nations simply cannot afford a lag in women’s education and literacy.

As such, in FY 2009, the United States invested about $774 million for all water sector- and sanitation-related activities in developing countries. One example is our “WASH in Schools” program, run in concert with many partners who are here tonight. Through WASH in Schools, US embassies are working with local NGOs to implement water and sanitation activities with teachers and students.

So, we are focused on building better conditions for young women—because, as they move from primary school to adulthood – as entrepreneurs, community leaders, professionals, they often become the stewards of water in their rural and coastal communities.

Which brings me to the second way we are creating better conditions for women in water. We are investing in the next generation of women leaders in science and technology so that they can become active drivers of water solutions. Whether she manages the local bore hole for her community or is developing the next water treatment plant for a multinational company, we know that leadership and business training for women are critical to achieving many of our long-term priorities related to health, agriculture, climate change, and water security.

One example is best told through the story of Sarah Ogalleh, an environmental scientist who grew up in Kenya with her grandmother. Sarah’s grandmother was a small farmer with no formal education. With the help of The African Women Agricultural Research and Development or “AWARD”—a program supported by USAID and the Gates Foundation—Sarah helped a community of small farmers, mostly women, by providing seed, hose pipes, a large water tank, and conservation advice.

Thanks to Sarah, that community is now selling high-quality seedlings to commercial growers, agricultural research institutions, and other small farmers. And AWARD has funded 180 fellows like Sarah to do similar work.

Women like Sarah are why we are here tonight. She is a reminder that those of us in this room—no matter how well-meaning—will not be the heroes of this story. It will be the villagers of Africa, the engineers of the Middle East, and the teachers of Asia, the mothers around the world. And about those villagers, engineers, and teachers, mothers, I will say this—and I expect the gentlemen in the room will agree with me—it will likely be the women among them leading the way as we overcome water challenges around the world.

So, as we depart this beautiful museum, inspired by the vision and creativity of the art that surrounds us, let us recommit to creating the conditions for women to succeed—from primary school girls to the microentrepreneurs, scientists, and leaders they grow up to be.

With that, I thank you for including me in this important occasion and for all that you do.