A Fountain of Faith: Women, Water and the Hope of New Life

Nepalese women wait to fill their vessels with water near Patan, in Nepal, Katmandu, on World Water Day, Friday, March 22, 20
Nepalese women wait to fill their vessels with water near Patan, in Nepal, Katmandu, on World Water Day, Friday, March 22, 2013. The U.N. estimates that more than one in six people worldwide do not have access to 20-50 liters (5-13 gallons) of safe freshwater a day to ensure their basic needs for drinking, cooking and cleaning. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

"Satisfy the needs of the oppressed then... The Lord will guide you always... You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail." -- Isaiah 58:10-12

Water is so fundamental to a life of faith that the Bible references it 722 times. In the stories of Scripture, water has both spiritual and physical power to purify, sanctify and restore our bodies, both on the inside and the outside. It is the foundation of all life, it is what we are made of, and it sustains everything in the world.

But there is also a spiritual discipline to be found here in relationship to water. Perhaps it can also be said that when we "satisfy the needs of the oppressed ... waters never fail" because when water fails, it does indeed oppress. It steals life, on many levels. And people of faith have the ability to change that for our sisters and brothers around the world. Our sisters are in special need of the spiritual and physical healing of water, not only because they deserve to have life to its fullest, but also because the unique and systemic oppression they face affects whole communities.

It is a threat most of us in the United States do not know and really cannot fathom: the close link between the oppression of women and girls and the lack of access to safe water and sanitation in much of the world today. According to WaterAid, studies in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, India and the Solomon Islands all confirm that fear, indignity and violence are commonplace anywhere women lack access to safe and adequate sanitation.

Consider the day-to-day life of a young mother named Sandimhia, 18, who lives in Mozambique. She must walk 15 minutes into the bush to defecate. "Sometimes when I go I feel ashamed and go back without defecating. Sometimes I wait until dark to go there so no one can see me. I will be very concerned about my daughter going to the bush because it is so far from here. At night it is very dangerous. People get killed. A woman and a boy were killed with knives. One woman I know of has been raped."

Others will be molested along deserted paths while collecting water for their families, forced to trade sex for water, or like two sisters in rural India, ages 16 and 21, held at gunpoint and gang-raped, because they went to a nearby field in the early morning hours to relieve themselves.

That is oppression.

So is the fact that women can spend up to 60 percent of their day hauling heavy containers of (often filthy) water for their families. They have no alternative. It takes them away from caring for young children, growing food and earning additional income for their families. Families remain in poverty. Bodies break down over time under the backbreaking weight of water. Families get sick.

That is oppression.

The poverty cycle continues as girls leave school to help their mothers shoulder this burden. Or when there are no gender-appropriate bathroom facilities to take care of their personal needs as they get older, they drop out of school rather than face taunting and humiliation.

That is oppression.

No mother should have to watch her child die -- suffer and die -- for lack of safe water and sanitation. But it happens 8,000 times every single day. Under the age of five, it is even worse: a little life is extinguished every 20 seconds. People are terrified and helpless and in constant grief.

That is oppression.

At this time of year when we look inward and explore ideas of what it means to sacrifice, we are particularly reminded of Isaiah in anticipating Easter and spring rains, reflection and renewal. We find ourselves looking outward at the sacrifices millions of women make for something we take for granted everyday: a safe glass of water and a toilet.

But we also think of the redemption that comes with this season, and here too, women play a vital role. About three hours outside Calcutta, a happily married woman named Rani was one of five women trained as a well mechanic. U.S.-based Water For People is empowering women to transform their communities by giving them the tools and know-how to keep clean water reliably flowing in their villages. In just four months, Rani earned 8,000 rupees for her family by repairing wells. Rani decided to become a well mechanic because she had seen so many children die from diarrhea, and the two wells in her village were constantly breaking. She loves her work. Other women look up to her. "Water is life for people out here," she says.

When we think about Rani, we think about the role water holds in our texts and rituals -- from the formation of the earth out of the mysterious waters of the deep to the formation of a new spiritual life out of the immersion of baptism -- we see her, too, as a creator of new worlds, a giver of life. In Matthew 25:35, Jesus tells us that the divine is present in every last human being and all are blessed by an active response when "I was thirsty and you gave me water." In Amos 5:24, the prophet, seeing widespread and devastating oppression in the land, pleads: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Reading these and so many other passages, something becomes clear. Water is never neutral or passive, and no longer can we be.

Our powerful collective voice can give life to hundreds of millions of families by bringing much-needed attention and urgency to the oppression of lack of safe water.

Satisfy the needs of the oppressed then... The Lord will guide you always... You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail." We can share our faith and be life-givers by supporting and growing both secular and non-secular sustainable water development, the linchpin to improving global health, nutrition, poverty, the environment, food security, gender equality and yes, even peace.

World Water Day was March 22. What a great day to start the flow.

Find out how to get your community involved: www.faithsforsafewater.org

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