Faculty reveal challenges of gender equality at World Water Day 2013

It takes 53 gallons of water to make a single latte, or a simple coffee and steamed milk. Four hundred gallons of water are needed to grow cotton for a t-shirt and a whopping 1,800 gallons to make one pair of blue jeans.

These facts were part of the eye-opening statistics and personal accounts presented at FIU’s “Women and Water: The Role of Gender Equality in Defining Sustainability of Water Resources Management” panel discussion. The event, sponsored by the Global Water for Sustainability Program (GLOWS) and the Women’s Studies Center, was in celebration of World Water Day 2013 and Women’s History Month.

World Water Day 2013 Panelists

Elizabeth Anderson, Suzanna Rose, Melissa Lutrell, Purnima Madhivanan, Marlene Bastien and Maria Donoso served as panelists at World Water Day 2013.

The panelists, including FIU faculty and community leaders, debated the key challenges of integrated water resources management, with an eye towards the role of women, and the need for education, and shifting gender roles and cultural values, in ensuring sustainability.

“As a child, I remember seeing my mom and aunts in Haiti coming home with water baskets on one hip and a baby on the other,” said Marlene Bastien, executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami, Inc. (FANM)/Haitian Women of Miami. “Throughout the world, women carry the burden of running a household and raising a family. We all have the responsibility to invest in women and girls. When they can go to school and become educated, the entire family will fare better. We need to implement global policies that will keep women’s rights in mind. Only then we’ll have viable and thriving societies.”

At least 1.2 billion people in the world lack access to the minimum quantity of water needed for basic health and hygiene. Forty percent of the population in Africa, 20 percent in Asia and 15 percent in Latin America don’t have access to safe water. In many parts of the world, women may walk to a water source two to three times daily with the first trip starting at sunrise.

“Experts agree there is a global water supply crisis coming,” said Suzanna Rose, executive director of the School of Integrated Science and Humanity. “Scientists, environmentalists and politicians predict the wars of the 21st century will be over water. In developed countries, we rarely think of water as a scarce resource since we buy it bottled, thanks to government standards for drinking water. As it becomes more scarce, we need to shift our purchases away from water-intensive products and make changes in our consumption and lifestyle habits.”

In developing nations, women are overwhelmingly responsible for performing household tasks that involve water, including cooking, cleaning, gardening, caring for animals and livestock, and promoting hygiene practices within the family. Even “fetching” and providing domestic water falls solely on them, who often bring their children on these often-dangerous treks to clean water sources.

It is clear that women are heavily involved with the lowest levels of water resource management, but their presence in policy and decision-making roles is strongly felt. As some panelists explained, these strict gender roles are deeply engrained, often for centuries, in many cultures and almost always go unquestioned.

“Including women in the policy- and decision-making processes of water resource management is critical,” said Maria Donoso, director of GLOWS. “However, keeping the cultural and social situation of a particular community in mind is just as critical in making change happen. We can’t just impose our ways on these communities. We need to respect their culture and encourage the role of women, young adults and elderly people in having more just processes in managing their water resources.”

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