'May I Please Have Some Water?'

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)

"May I please have some water? Would you be so kind to direct me to the bathroom?" Such are the pressing questions on my mind these days. It's to be expected: after all, I am nine months pregnant. But, wow, am I lucky to be pregnant in New York City and not in Sub-Saharan Africa. I think about that a lot.

I understand the other women in my pre-natal yoga class might not count their blessings every time they get a drink or flush a toilet, but as the Executive Director of Voss Foundation, it's always on my mind.

Voss Foundation's mission is to provide access to clean water to communities in Sub-Saharan Africa and to raise awareness of the ongoing need in the region. We help fulfill communities' water requirements and, once basic needs are met, we focus on the self-improvement of lives and communities, in particular in the context of women.

As we recently celebrated World Water Day and approach Mother's Day, we are aware of the struggles women face around the world. Imagine, for a moment, the lifecycle of a rural African woman without access to clean water.

I imagine being pregnant in one of the communities I've visited across the continent, walking up to ten miles a day (source), carrying buckets weighing as much as 40 pounds on my head (source), probably with another child wrapped around me. I wouldn't be able to take a drink of water without risking deadly illnesses to my unborn child and myself. And I certainly couldn't use a nice, clean flushable toilet or wash my hands afterward. Carrying such a heavy load over long distances has detrimental health effects, including back and chest pains, developmental deformities for growing children, arthritic disease, and miscarriages.

There wouldn't be much clean water available for my labor and delivery -- for washing, sterile instruments and certainly not for water births that are so popular in the U.S. and Europe lately. Should I require emergency obstetric medical attention, even if I were lucky enough to live within walking distance of a rural health facility, it's unlikely they would have fresh water onsite or, therefore, be hygienic. Most women bring their own water to the clinic. No wonder 36 of the 40 countries with the highest maternal death rates are in sub-Saharan Africa (source).

If I have a daughter, what would her life be like? She would start with negligible survival odds. The World Bank estimates that 6,000 children die every day from a lack of access to clean water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene (source). That's more than from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. If she did get sick, she couldn't be treated in sanitary facilities or even take medicine with fresh water.

Hopefully she'd survive, thrive and be able to go to school. But soon, she'd have to help me get water in the mornings before class starts. I'd have to make sure she filled a jug to take to school, as there probably wouldn't be any water onsite, but at least she'd be learning. I'm sure I'd be a progressive parent who felt strongly about my daughter getting an education... but, what would we do when our family had grown so large that I couldn't carry enough water alone every day to meet our needs?

If some of us got sick with cholera, who would help me take care of everyone and go fetch more of that cholera-tainted water? My daughter would have to miss class to help me keep our family alive -- and might ultimately drop out all together. And, while walking the many kilometers back and forth the creek or water hold, we'd be subject to rape and violence.

If my daughter were able to stay in school for a while, odds are she'd have to drop out when she reached puberty. Without sanitation and hygiene facilities at home and school, it might be too embarrassing for her to attend once she got her period. The International Museum of Women cites the statistic that one in ten girls will miss school or drop out altogether because of menstruation. (source)

Now my adolescent daughter would be out of school and the cycle would start all over again: she would marry young because, without an education, she no longer represents much value to our family; she would be pregnant early (without clean water); give birth (without clean water); start carrying buckets to care for her own family; and on and on.

Does it have to be this way? No.

Voss Foundation can break the cycle giving priority to the role and needs of women when planning our clean water projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. We call it The Ripple Effect of Clean Water,

More girls involved in all of our projects have the opportunity to go to school and receive uninterrupted education. Our well in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the first in the region, is the only source of clean water for the Georges Malaika Foundation's School for Girls, serving the school, toilets, sinks, health center, and agricultural garden.

According to the World Bank, each year of primary school boosts girls' eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. Robert Gallucci, president of the MacArthur Foundation, has found that girls with higher levels of education marry later, have smaller families, survive childbirth at higher rates, experience reduced incidences of HIV/AIDS, have children more likely to survive to age five and earn more money. (source) Moreover, in each one of our water projects, we ask that the water management committees are composed of at least 50% women, helping them gain political power.

By monitoring our projects for years after implementation, we see just how life-changing our clean water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions are.

In Swari, Kenya, Voss Foundation reduced the distance to the nearest water source from over three miles to approximately half a mile. Collecting water is no longer as laborious and dangerous a task. Women benefit from greater access to health services. The local government decided to build a clinic in Swari and a new maternity wing in Latakwen, the site of our first Kenyan water project, thanks to our project.

Our 2012 Women Helping Women clean water project in Swaziland was actually proposed by groups of female artisans who came together to ask for clean water, sanitation, and hygiene. They knew clean water would make them and their families healthier, ultimately more economically successful and empowered. Numerous studies demonstrate that women reinvest in their families and communities at much higher rates than men, thereby raising regional output and eventually GDP by major factors. (source)

Through our Women Helping Women campaigns around the world, we have created a direct connection between female donors and beneficiaries. We have brought women donors to meet the women whose lives they have affected, a life-altering experience for all. (You can see for yourself in the photos from our Women Helping Women trips to Swari and Ndonyo Nasipa!)

Learn more about our Women Helping Women efforts and consider joining us this year at one of Voss Foundation's signature Women Helping Women events in Boston, Oslo, San Francisco and New York.

Or start your own!

This Mother's Day please take a moment to remember what we can do to give women and girls in Africa access to their most basic needs. The water that Voss Foundation wells provide is the engine for growth that empowers those women and girls with the chance and momentum they need to thrive.

Sometime amidst all of these events, I will give birth to a baby. In a clean, hygienic environment. I hope the baby is healthy, but of course I don't know for sure. What I do know is that my baby won't die, get sick or be disadvantaged because of a lack of fresh water and sanitation. I know this is a luxury I can expect him or her to enjoy throughout life in a developed country. I also know that the women I have not yet met through my project site visits to Africa won't enjoy such luxury. At least, not without your help...