Two female bloggers are following the Carbon for Water campaign, an initiative of Vestergaard Frandsen that will distribute 900,000 LifeStraw Family water purifiers to homes in the Western Province of Kenya. These bloggers were winners of the Women Bloggers Deliver contest and seek to tell the stories of how the Carbon for Water campaign is affecting the lives of girls and women.
By: Rachel Cernansky, winner of the Women Bloggers Deliver contest
It was raining when we got to the Malava Girls school--the loud, heavy kind of rain that makes it hard to hear your own voice inside--and we weren't sure we would get to visit with the girls we came to see. The plan was to demonstrate a LifeStraw Family and to hear what they had to say about clean water and the impact of waterborne diseases on their lives.
But we waited the rain out and did get to see the girls, just an hour or so later than scheduled. And we got to hear about so much more than just water.
They overflowed the area under the canopy where we gathered, and the girls that couldn't fit stood on the periphery with umbrellas in case it started to rain again (which it did). We talked about water: at least half the room raised their hands when asked if they'd ever been sick with a waterborne illness. Nearly as many raised their hands to say it's happened multiple times.
We demonstrated the LifeStraw Family using a bucket of the muddiest water around--and had a teacher of the students' choosing come and drink the purified water, after which the girls went crazy with excitement. Vestergaard's own Elisabeth Wilhelm and a few other volunteer students all did the same, and the LifeStraw water passed everyone's test.
We talked about access to water, and the girls told us how difficult it can be to get even a minimal amount to get through a day. Fiona said she'll wait in a long line for water, and sometimes never makes it to the front and returns home with a still-empty bucket. We talked about carbon emissions, and they clearly understood what climate change is and the potential impacts on the environment and human health. We talked about how standing over a cookstove, which is done for cooking but also for boiling water, is bad for the respiratory system, and so the LifeStraw will save them time and money by not having to boil water, but will also improve women's respiratory health.
But the conversation took a turn we did not expect. Their intelligence showed through in their questions, but unfortunately, so did the magnitude of the issues they face simply because they are girls.
I'm glad we visited a girls' school: the visit illustrated the importance of two of the Millennium Development Goals at the same time, universal education and gender equality. Studies have shown that investment in the education of females brings high returns, including boosts in social and economic progress. But as girls become educated, they are also more empowered and aware of their rights.
Yesterday, they started asking questions they'd clearly had on their minds but had no one to ask or been too shy or ashamed to do so. (We'd requested the schoolmasters to leave the room.) We got asked questions about basic women's health, breast cancer, typhoid and clean water, but also about female genital mutilation, about relationships with their male peers, and about a girl who was sexually abused by her father for so many years and is now a prostitute--what advice should her friends now give to her?
Gender equality has come a long way in some parts of the world over the last few decades, but it's clear from questions like this that there is so much farther to go. Laws have to change, culture has to change, educational and economic opportunities have to change--and people's attitudes have to change.
In the developing world, about 104 million children ages 6 to 11 do not attend school, and 60 million of those are girls. The disparity is even greater in secondary school. In Africa, according to Oxfam, girls attend school for an average of 2.82 years before they reach the age of 16. Malava is a high school, so we were talking with girls who are a lot more fortunate than many of their peers. The girls we spoke with were on average about 15 years old.
We were there to answer questions they did not feel comfortable asking in their own classrooms, but what happens on all the other days, and in all the other schools? And for girls who aren't in school at all? How many girls are questioning their role in an unequal society, but are shushed or scolded or punished for asking those questions out loud, let alone acting on them?
Women perform an estimated 66 percent of the world's work, produce about 50 percent of the world's food, but earn less than 10 percent of global income. With cleaner water, improved health and increased quantity and quality of education, those statistics should start to balance out.
We also got asked questions about maternal health: will a pregnant woman suffering from a waterborne disease pass it on to her child? Should HIV-positive women breastfeed their babies? (No, is the answer to the last question. It's one a lot of educated people thought was well-understood by now, but there is clearly a gap in understanding. One girl had even heard that HIV-positive women should breastfeed their babies because it will make them stronger. The medical knowledge we have available says exactly the opposite.)
All of these issues are connected: better-educated women are likely to have healthier (and fewer) pregnancies and to give birth in a hospital, rather than at home. Healthier women are more able to take better care of their children, and easier access to clean water improves children's performance in school.
The LifeStraw isn't going to solve all of these issues, but if it's one step toward improved health for women by reducing smoke inhalation and for the whole family by eliminating waterborne illness, then that's a population that can start focusing on the next challenge that lies ahead.