Women, water & the cycle of poverty

August 10, 2017
Written by Kristin Myers
Photo by Jennifer Nolan

Imagine balancing a 40-pound container on your head and walking three and a half miles home. Sound difficult? Well, it’s the unfortunate daily reality of millions of women and girls around the world.

Collectively, women and girls spend 200 million hours fetching water every day. That’s according to a recent UNICEF study, which also characterized the figure as a “colossal waste of time.”

Young girl collects water in CAR

A girl collects water from a spring near a gold mine in Gaga village, CAR. When conflict erupted in October 2013, 58 wells were contaminated with bodies and are now unusable. That left some 8,000 local people with far fewer places collection points, so Concern is building water pumps and wells. Photo: Crystal Wells

More than two billion people worldwide don’t have clean water available at home. In fact, for hundreds of millions of people, the nearest water source is at least 30 minutes away. Because the task of fetching water almost always falls to women and girls, they frequently spend hours each day just traveling to and from the nearest water source.

One study in Tanzania showed that school attendance increased by 12% when water was available within 15 minutes of home.

Girl in Pakistan carries water home

Poni, a 12-year old girl from Cheel Bandh village, in Pakistan’s Umerkot district, carries water from the village well to her home. Photo: Sharjeel Arif

For some, this problem is actually getting worse. Freshwater is becoming increasingly scarce In many parts of the world, due to changes in climate and pressure from growing populations. The UN estimates that in less than ten years 1.8 billion people will live in areas where there won’t be enough water. If current patterns continue, this will disproportionately impact women and girls who will be forced to spend increasing amounts of time and energy searching for and retrieving water.

A lost opportunity

Imagine what more you could achieve if you were able to free up one, two, or even six hours in your day, every day. For many women and girls, the hours spent fetching water come at a high cost — less time spent studying, working in the fields, or running their own small businesses.


The typical jerry can that many women use holds five gallons — that’s 40 pounds when full.

One study in Tanzania showed that school attendance increased by 12% when water was available within 15 minutes of home. And when women are busy fetching water, they have less time to work and earn money. This keeps many women — and their families — trapped in a cycle of poverty, unable to earn and save the money they need to achieve a brighter future.

A woman walks home with water she's collected

An Ethiopian woman walks home with water that she collected from a tank filled by Concern. Some people, often women, walk up to five hours a day to collect water. Photo: Kieran McConville

Impact on physical health

Fetching water is also a physically demanding task, which can take a huge toll on the body over time. A typical jerry can (which many women use to carry water) holds five gallons — that’s 40 pounds when full. Women will either hold the can, or, more commonly, balance it on their heads. If carrying 40 pounds of water on your head sounds painful, that’s because it is — especially if you’re a young girl. Many women report developing back and spinal pain over time.

Women also often get less sleep, as the hours spent fetching water cut into the time they have for other household and family tasks, leading them to stay up later just to keep up.

Women help children wash their hands in Malawi

Members of the Mbachundu village Community Childcare Development Center, in Malawi, provide children with water to wash their hands before eating. Concern provided the center with a water filter so these children can access clean water for cleaning and drinking. Photo: Aoife O’Grady

What Concern is Doing About It

Women and girls are at the heart of everything Concern does — especially when it comes to water. Concern’s water, sanitation & hygiene (WASH) programming builds wells and boreholes in communities so women and girls don’t have to walk for miles to fetch water. During periods of drought or conflict we truck water into vulnerable communities. Concern also teaches good sanitation and hygiene habits, such as handwashing, so that communities stay healthy and children don’t miss school.

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women lift water from a well in Niger

Women in Tahoua, Niger, work together to lift water from a well. This particular well often dries up by mid morning and won’t refill for 5-6 hours. Sometimes the women sleep near the well to ensure they get water in the morning. Photo: Jennifer Nolan