Excerpts from remarks by Maria Otero, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.June 13, 2011

Around the world, women and girls in developing countries walk an average of 6 kilometers a day (3.75 miles) carrying 20 liters (or 42 pounds) of water—often in isolated, unsafe areas, putting them in harm’s way. In some areas, the journey takes more than 15 hours a week, making it difficult for girls to go to school. Less education means fewer economic opportunities for women, which in turn hurts the local economy. And thus the cycle continues.

Whether we are talking about climate change, food security, global health, we know this: clean water is a crucial ingredient for sustainable progress on our foreign policy priorities:

• Droughts and floods now affect more people than all other natural disasters combined.

• Competition over scarce water is increasingly a source of tension, even conflict within and between countries.

• Unsafe water, sanitation, and hygiene are already among the world’s top risk factors for death and disease.

• And climate change will only exacerbate all of these challenges.
No matter where you are in the world, it is the women who are on the front lines of these fragile environments. They are the first victims—but they are also the first responders. When provided with appropriate training and resources, women have enormous potential to devise and implement solutions to address these threats.

The key here—what we are all working towards—is creating the conditions in which women can move from their status as potential victims of water challenges and transform to becoming agents of change. So, let me briefly touch on two ways we are doing just that:

• First, by providing better water, sanitation and hygienic conditions in schools, as well as incorporating WASH into school curricula;

• And second, by empowering women to become productive members of their societies, especially in fields that relate to water.
First, in order to really affect systemic change, we must start young. No matter where you live—be it Boston or Bamako—schools are the foundation of strong communities. It is a tragic irony that those who go to schools to learn, congregate, and protect their health, are often put at risk from the school environment itself. More than half of all primary schools in developing countries do not have adequate water facilities and nearly two-thirds lack adequate sanitation.

And all along, women and girls suffer disproportionately. Female school staff and girls who have reached puberty are less likely to attend schools that lack sanitation and even more, gender specific sanitation facilities. They stop attending school. As we increasingly recognize the contribution of women to household income, health, education, and nutritional outcomes, nations simply cannot afford a lag in women’s education and literacy.

As such, in FY 2009, the United States invested about $774 million for all water sector- and sanitation-related activities in developing countries. One example is our “WASH in Schools” program. Through WASH in Schools, US embassies are working with local NGOs to implement water and sanitation activities with teachers and students.

So, we are focused on building better conditions for young women—because, as they move from primary school to adulthood – as entrepreneurs, community leaders, professionals, they often become the stewards of water in their rural and coastal communities. We are investing in the next generation of women leaders in science and technology so that they can become active drivers of water solutions. Whether she manages the local bore hole for her community or is developing the next water treatment plant for a multinational company, we know that leadership and business training for women are critical to achieving many of our long-term priorities related to health, agriculture, climate change, and water security.