Today, March 22, is World Water Day. This international day to celebrate water has evolved over the years, since it was first recognized by the UN in 1993. It is only fitting that World Water Day shares a place in the same month as International Women’s Day, celebrated every year on March 8, as the two are so intertwined. The presence and quality of water plays a role in women’s lives throughout the world like no other resource. It can mean educational opportunities, job opportunities, healthy families, or none of that.
Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) have important impacts on many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including poverty and hunger, child deaths, and environmental sustainability. Notably, WASH impacts maternal health in significant ways, as well. MDG target 5A seeks to “reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio,” and investing and supporting WASH programs can help do just that.
While poor hygiene at childbirth is the most obvious factor in maternal deaths related to WASH, there are other ways it influences maternal health. Waterborne illness during pregnancy reduces good nutrition and inhibits the immune system. Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) like hookworm are associated with anemia during pregnancy. Poor water storage encourages mosquito breeding and transmission of malaria; and the daily back-breaking drudgery of carrying 40 pounds of water on their heads is especially hard on pregnant women. WASH can even influence women’s childbirth choices: if health facilities do not have running water or offer toilet facilities, women sometimes choose to give birth at home, increasing risks of potential complications.
More and more countries are recognizing the linkages between WASH and healthy mothers, like Malawi. Last year, President Joyce Banda created the President’s Initiative on Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood as part of her commitment to improving Malawi’s maternal health status. As part of this initiative, Freshwater International is stepping in to provide WASH facilities at the maternal waiting shelters (MWS) for mothers waiting to deliver and training healthcare personnel in hygiene practices.
Traditionally, maternal health programs and WASH programs are performed separately. To have real and lasting impact on the health of mothers, it will take a new way of thinking about these programs and working together to achieve mutual outcomes. Let’s not be stuck inside the same boxes in looking at women’s issues around the world! WASH is essential for healthy pregnancies and childbirth.
On this World Water Day, let’s recognize the important role that WASH has in healthy women, healthy mothers, and healthy children, and let’s make sure that all women and children around the world have access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene. It really is a matter of life or death.
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