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Women in Water

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly declared 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day aims to promote full and equal access to participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through the empowerment of women and girls globally. Tomorrow marks the seventh International Day of Women and Girls in Science, with 2022’s theme being “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: Water Unites Us”. This year, the UN is focussing on the role of women in accelerating progress towards their sixth Sustainable Development Goal – ensuring access to water and sanitation for all.

Globally, three in ten people lack access to safely managed drinking water services and six in ten to safely managed sanitation facilities. This issue disproportionately affects women and girls for a number of reasons. Safe and clean water is vital for women to attend to their personal hygiene needs, such as menstruation and pregnancy.  Furthermore, due to their typical role as primary care givers, women and girls often bear most responsibility for the water and sanitation needs of their families. In 80% of households without access to water on premises, women are tasked with water collection, a strenuous chore that can consume a huge proportion of their day. A woman may rise early in the morning, travel long distances by foot across difficult or even dangerous terrain, wait for hours in a line and return home bearing the huge weight of the water required for that day. Additionally, when travelling to and from and using sanitation facilities women and girls are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Overall, when water needs are not met, women and girls, at best, cannot attend school or work and, at worst, can suffer from serious health issues. Lack of access to clean water and suitable sanitation, therefore, constitutes a major obstacle to socio-economic progress for women and girls.

As women are most impacted by the issue, it’s vital that their voices are heard as the world looks to find the right solutions. A growing body of evidence emphasizes that women’s engagement in water management leads to more effective services and enhanced environmental and economic benefits for their communities. A United Nations Development Program study of 44 water projects across Africa and Asia, found that when women were involved in decision-making, water facilities were sustained for longer, used more and, overall, were more successful. Yet only 23% of licensed engineers working in water utilities are female and one in three water and sanitation services have no women in technical or managerial positions at all.

The gender disparity in the water industry merely reflects the gender gap in the STEM sector as a whole. One in three researchers are women, yet they represent less than one in six members of national science academies. Female researchers also tend to be underrepresented in scientific journals, have fewer promotions and, lower paid careers than their male counterparts. With this in mind, what better time to shine a light on some of the trailblazing women and girls already helping to make clean water and sanitation for all a reality.

Gitanjali Rao – Inventor

Watching the news in 2014, Gitanjali, age ten, learnt of the Flint water crisis, a public health emergency caused by a cost cutting measure to change the city’s water source. As a result, 100,000 residents of Flint, Michigan were exposed to lead, and possibly Legionella bacteria, in their drinking water for five years. Residents experienced several health issues including rashes and hair loss. Further, longer term exposure to lead is linked to fertility issues and complications in child development caused by damage to the brain and nervous system.

Following this exposure, families across America tested the content of their own water. Observing the complex, expensive and time-consuming process of having her own home’s water tested, Gitanjali saw an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. She had learnt about the use of carbon nanotubes to detect hazardous gases and wondered if it could be applied to testing for lead in water. On a tour of Denver’s municipal water facility, Gitanjali met Selene Hernandez Ruiz, a lab manager. The two began working on bringing Gitanjali’s idea to life, in the form of Tethys, a hand-held water testing device, named after the Greek goddess of freshwater. The patent pending tool aims to enable quick, cheap and easy testing of water contamination in the home, empowering residents with real-time information on their water content. The two continue to work together testing detection methods for other metals including mercury, arsenic and cadmium. At just 16, Gitanjali has also worked on technology to counter issues including cyberbullying and opioid addiction and she continues to use her platform to inspire other young girls to engage in STEM.

Márcia Barbosa – Physicist

Márcia Barbosa is a Professor of Physics at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and a director of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. Her research focuses on explaining the abnormal properties of water and using this to develop practical solutions for real world problems. One of her current projects is researching the ways that specialised nanotubes could transform salty water and water vapour into freshwater as a means to tackle shortages of safe drinking water.

Beyond physics, Márcia is a champion of improving the conditions of women working in STEM. As a physics undergraduate in 1978, she was one of eight women in a cohort of 80. As the course progressed, her female classmates began to drop out, leaving her as the only woman to graduate from the course. When running for a student leadership position at the University, she faced sexist opposition from her fellow students. The barriers Márcia has experienced throughout her career spurred her to study the gender gap in science and advocate for change within the sector. She stated her dream as a scientist is “to make science better, fairer and more diverse” so that “the next generation of women researchers don’t need to be outspoken or a man to evolve their careers”.

Wika Maulay Fatimah – Engineer

Wika Maulay Fatimah is both a researcher at Bandung Institute of Technology in Indonesia and Chief Engineer at Lota+, an international social enterprise that offers off-grid sanitation solutions for communities lacking proper facilities. Within the Water and Wastewater Engineering Research Group, she explores how sanitation methods can be implemented across informal settlements. At Lota+, she helps make these ideas a reality, bringing their affordable toilets to villages, schools and places of work in her country and globally. In Indonesia alone, there are nearly 25 million people still practising open defecation, leading to pollution, disease and leaving women and children, in particular, vulnerable to harassment. Wika’s work is vital to tackling poverty, cultivating happy and healthy communities and removing yet another barrier to education and work for women and girls.

To read more about these inspirational women and their work check out the further reading. For more information about International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2022, you can visit the UN’s dedicated webpage.

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Further reading/watching:  

Gitanjali Rao



Márcia Barbosa



Wika Maulay Fatimah

WASH 2021 Young Change Makers: