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    FAWCO sponsors ‘Women & the Right to Water’ Panel at the UN

    FAWCO sponsors ‘Women & the Right to Water’ Panel at the UN

    By Sara von Moos                                                                                                                                                                 

    FAWCO UN NGO Representative

    As the world prepares to mark a unique moment in history and welcome its 7th billion inhabitant, FAWCO has achieved a milestone of its own. On Sept 26, 2011, FAWCO had the privilege of sponsoring its first high level panel at the UN Headquarters in Geneva, during the 18th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC).

    Organized by Lois Herman, AWAR member and Director of Women’s UN Report Network (WUNRN), this high level panel consisted of expert speakers representing five development organizations which empower women through water initiatives. Ms. Herman credits FAWCO and its Target Water Program as her inspiration for creating this first-of-its-kind panel during an HRC session.

    The tone of the panel was set by a statement from Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. Ms. De Albuquerque was the driving force behind the HRC’s recognition of ‘access to water and sanitation as a fundamental human right’ in July 2010 and was now presenting a new report at the 18th session in hopes of strengthening the resolution.

    “The water and sanitation crisis continues unabated with 2.6 billion people lacking sanitation and nearly one billion with no access to a water source and women are at the center of this crisis. Not only does the lack of water and sanitation have a disproportionately negative impact on women’s human rights, but women are the key actors who can lead us to a changed world – where everyone has access to water and sanitation which is safe, affordable and acceptable.”  

    The excellent panelists presented a diverse portfolio of initiatives which stemmed from the same fundamental understanding - the recognition that the burden of water procurement lies almost entirely on women and girls, that this task marginalizes women.  It presents health and injury risks to them as well as increasing their exposure to violence and attacks. Lack of access to water and sanitation poses an additional dimension to women and girls because of menstrual hygiene needs. Lastly, all recognized that while women are responsible for water procurement and management, they are often excluded from any decision making on this issue.

    ISIS Int’l, a women’s advocacy group which focuses on communication, training and technology to empower women, painted a picture of present day struggles of women around the world affected by drought, climate change and disaster. The panelist recalled the 1980’s during the early days of ISIS’ work, when gender perspective was non-existent and feminist groups were seen as suspect.  In order to gain acceptance of its capacity building programs, ISIS had to use the term ‘efficiency’ as a justification for training women!

    WEDO, an international woman’s advocacy organization which aims to promote and protect human rights, gender equality and the integrity of the environment ,was founded by several illustrious women, including US Congresswoman, Bella Abzug and recently deceased Nobel Peace Laureate, Wangari Maathi. The panelist focused her presentation on climate change and its impact on women: Experts agree that the first natural resource to be affected by climate change is water. The scarcity of water leads to migration, conflict and disease. As women are delegated the task of water procurement, they are clearly the most impacted by climate change. For this reason, women’s needs must be included when making decisions regarding water and sanitation provisions and women need to be involved in the process.

    MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization working with local grass roots organizations to meet urgent needs and build lasting solutions to crises faced by women around the world, was founded in 1983 by a group of American women after traveling to Nicaragua and seeing the impact of the US-sponsored Contra War. The panelist shared her concern about being on the cusp of reaching a world population of 7 billion, saying that access to water will play a much more prominent role – that “while wars of the past centuries have been fought over oil, wars of the future will be fought over water.” She called out for looking at past and present practices, working together, establishing partnerships and involving youth in finding new solutions.

    WECF, a network of over 100 health and environmental organizations in over 40 European countries, advocates globally for a healthy environment for all and brings safe ecological solutions with gender based approaches to local problems in the areas of chemicals, sanitation, energy and food production. The panelist presented WECF’s experiences with the implementation of Urine Diverting Dry Toilets, an innovative sustainable sanitation option for households and schools where reliable water supply and wastewater management is missing.  At the amazing price of 37 Euros each, since 2003  WECF has, successfully installed over 1000 individual, school and public dry toilets throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

    Invited to speak at the panel  by FAWCO, the Swiss Red Cross representative said that the SWC  views water as the basis for life, health and development. Consequently, it has an extensive program of water initiatives as part of its development work. The SRC finds water, sanitation and hygiene to be intrinsically linked and aims to include these three components in all its initiatives. While the SRC uses community based approaches, it recognizes that the involvement of women is critical to the success of programs as well as the health and development of the community. It helps empower women by giving them ownership and responsibility of programs and connecting them with local government, which creates a domino effect, building their confidence to assert themselves in other areas of life.

    Lois Herman ended the panel with a dramatic yet poetic presentation of the faces of women and girls around the world impacted by water shortages. She quoted UN conventions protecting and promoting women’s human rights and stressed that civil society has played a prominent role in this effort, but that we must continue to keep a pulse on what is happening and expose and report any injustices.

    The 18th session of the Human Rights Council concluded with the adoption of Good Practices related to Water & Sanitation, as proposed by the Special Rapporteur, and a call on member states to continuously monitor and analyze the realization of the right to safe drinking water and sanitation for all. The Women & the Right to Water Panel played the important role of being the first panel during an HRC session to bring attention to the disproportionate impact that the issue of water and sanitation has on women and girls, as well as, the valuable role that women can play in finding solutions and a way forward.

    We are encouraged and look forward to the acknowledgment of the gender dimension of the ‘human right to water and sanitation’ during a future HRC session and inclusion of text promoting and protecting the rights of women in this regard, as the world’s population reaches historic proportions.


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