(WOMENSENEWS)–March has been a great month for women and water.

Let’s keep it going as we approach World Water Day on March 22.

The huge news, of course, came when the United Nations announced that the world has met the Millennium Development Goal target to reduce by half the proportion of people worldwide living without access to safe drinking water.


Not only was this target met, it was met nearly four years ahead of schedule.

This is really a big splash for girls and women. It’s often girls and women, after all, who fetch and pump the family’s water and manage crops while lacking control over household resources. Girls and women are disproportionately burdened with chores and care-giving, illiteracy, hunger and poverty.

Access to safe drinking water can help ameliorate or overcome all these challenges.

But hang on.

While hailing this accomplishment, let’s remember the Millennium Development Goal target to halve the proportion of people living without safe sanitation. This is the most off-track of all our poverty-reduction goals. The goal, to halve, by 2012, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation will not be met. By 2015, only 67 percent of the world will have access to improved sanitation facilities, not the stated goal of 75 percent of the population. Today, 63 percent of the global population use toilets and other improved sanitation facilities.

What’s clean water if sanitation isn’t there to keep it clean?

Fortunately, the U.S. Agency for International Development understands how these goals are twinned.

When the agency released its long-awaited policy on gender equality and female empowerment earlier this month, authors stressed the need for more gender equity in water and sanitation project.

It’s a fantastic start, and great leadership. With Congressional support for improved equity in water and sanitation projects, we might just have even more to celebrate.

If you want to join in the fight for water and sanitation justice, I urge you to take a look at the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act, which will prioritize expanded access to safe water and sanitation by being smarter about how we spend existing resources–and by emphasizing the needs of women and girls and the opportunities offered by greater equity.

Between now and World Water Day on March 22, we have the opportunity and obligation to make more noise about women and water.

Clean water depends on sanitation, and both depend on governments being willing to prioritize the needs of women and girls.

Incomplete Milestone

The Millennium Goal target, after all, is an incomplete milestone.

Nearly 800 million people still lack everyday access to safe drinking water. A further 2.5 billion don’t have sanitation facilities; no latrine, let alone a toilet or sewers.

A reliable source of safe drinking water close to home can increase women’s decision-making and negotiation power because they have time to contribute to household income instead of spending hours seeking water, which is often unsafe to drink anyway.

Programs done right can give women a decision-making voice in their communities, too, often for the first time, by ensuring their input is heard by water users committees that decide where to put water taps and how to maintain them.

This has the additional benefit that when women and girls no longer need to look for water, they can instead attend school, vocational training, or literacy programs. They can socialize and play with their kids. They can grow more food–and healthier food–if they have time, the health, and the skills to work and better manage water resources. Progress on access to safe drinking water opens many doors for women of all ages in communities worldwide.

The Millennium Development Goals targets are a global aggregate. They do not necessarily require public health officials to serve the most remote communities, the most marginalized populations, the sickest or most stigmatized.

When you overlay those issues with an understanding that gender-based discrimination is still rampant worldwide, it becomes even more certain that women and girls will benefit greatly when we now get down to the tough stuff.

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Lisa Schechtman is head of policy and advocacy at WaterAid in America.