Remarks at the Fifth Annual 6K Walk for Water

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC
April 23, 2015

As prepared

I’d like you to imagine if your family spent eight hours every week carrying 32-pound pails of water. Imagine walking more than 1,750 miles each year, just to get what you need to wash clothes, clean vegetables, or cook dinner.

Imagine this not in Zambia or India, but right here in the United States. Because this was life for millions of women in American farm families just 75 years ago. These women didn’t have electricity to pump water from the ground. So they did the back-breaking work of walking to the well, pulling up water with all their might, and then carrying it back home.

I share this story with you today because the United States knows as well as any country that women are often disproportionately affected by access issues. And we also know that progress isn’t just possible—it’s also incredibly powerful.

In just a few short years, rural electrification and other infrastructure projects gave American farm women time to do other things—like become engines of economic growth.

But we’re here today because for far too many people around the world, this problem hasn’t been solved. Today hundreds of millions of women and girls are still disproportionately affected by water challenges. The World Health Organization estimates that women and children spend 140 million hours each day collecting water around the world. That’s 140 million hours not spent attending school, or caring for family members, or making money at a job. Trips to distant water sources also expose women and girls to health and safety risks, including gender-based violence.

And this is an education issue too. If girls don’t have access to bathrooms or hygiene products, they might have to miss several hours or even days of school each month, causing them to fall behind. And that can add to other pressures for them to drop out.

So if we can solve these issues, we expand opportunities for women and girls. It’s well documented that narrowing the gender gap in workforce participation can boost entire economies. Experts estimate that countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam could see a 14 percent rise in per capita income by the year 2020—if only they could reduce barriers to women’s participation in the workforce.

Well here’s a good place to start. Let’s increase the amount of time women have to contribute to the economy by improving access to water and sanitation. And let’s make sure that women are included as critical partners in tackling this problem. Women play a central role in household water management, which means that any program addressing water or sanitation needs to include women directly.

The World Bank has studied water projects around the world, and found that when women were involved, a project was six to seven times more effective than projects that left women out.

So I’m grateful to all of you for being here today—for showing your kids that this issue is important, and for showing solidarity with so many millions of girls and women around the world.

And now it’s my pleasure to introduce Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and Environment Cathy Novelli.