LONDON - One week after Monday's recognition of International Women's Day comes World Consumer Rights Day. But it is more than calendar dates that tie them together. A leading consumers group is linking women's rights closely to consumer rights, particularly around the issue of water.
Consumers International (CI), which represents more than 250 consumer organizations in 115 countries, says that following International Women's Day it will move to celebrate the powerful role that women consumer activists play in the promotion of consumer protection and basic human rights--especially the right to water.
The theme for its observance of consumer rights day this year is that "Water is a consumer right," and that women are in the forefront of needing and securing that right.
Women, water, and consumer organizations come together naturally, Kaye Stearman from CI told IPS. And the most potent link is poverty. The poor are a lot less likely to have access to clean water and sanitation. And according to UN studies, 70 percent of the world's poorest people with least access to resources are women and girls.
According to another UN report, 1.2 billion people have no access to clean water and sanitation, Stearman said. Clearly women suffer disproportionately from lack of access to clean water.
The link between women's issues and water issues can be a direct one, Stearman said. It is often women who have to go to collect water, and then physically carry it back. In the shanty towns around Lusaka in Zambia we found this to be a great burden on women, particularly because women often have to walk several miles to fetch water, and they are at risk of assault on the way.
The solution is to provide better access to water. That cannot be provided free because the project would then be unsustainable, she said. Nor can it be priced too high. And since it is the women who are affected most, and affected first, women need to be linked to water access and pricing, which is a consumers' issue.
A report issued by the CI Monday explains how women, water and consumer interests can come together on the ground. In Senegal women have formed a neighborhood cooperative society to administer local water pumps, lower prices, provide hygiene education and promote consumer rights. The 18-month project funded by the European Commission enabled the construction of 52 standpipes and 600 sewages in poor suburbs around capital Dakar.
The project engaged with women's need for water, and then engaged women in its administrative and pricing structure as consumers, and finally got women involved in administering the project.
Marilena Lazzarini, CI president and coordinator of the Instituto Brasileiro de Defesa do Consumidor (IDEC), Brazil's leading consumer organization says that some of IDEC's earliest campaigns were around water. We tested tap water in different cities and then campaigned for better regulation to ensure safe water supplies. Now we monitor governments and water companies to ensure that they follow those regulations. Women have been the primary beneficiaries of clean water, and consumer watchdogs that involve women actively have made sure the water flows where it should.
High prices for water is an issue that mobilizes women around the world, the CI report says. Women are in the forefront of consumer campaigns against skyrocketing water prices in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, India, Malaysia, Mali, Slovenia and elsewhere, the report says. What women can do as consumers will benefit women as users.
Women understand water issues at their most basic consumer level, as they affect community, household and family health, the report says. Women's traditional role in family welfare and care-giving explains why women consumer activists at the grassroots and community level have focused on water quality and prices.
The report points to some salient facts about women and water:
- Poor women in Africa and Asia walk an average of six kilometers a day to collect water.
- Poor rural women in developing countries may spend eight hours a day collecting water, carrying up to 20 kilos of water on their heads each journey.
- One in ten school-age girls in Africa do not attend school during menstruation or drop out at puberty because of the absence of clean and private sanitation facilities in schools.
- Every day 6,000 girls and boys die from diseases linked to unsafe water, inadequate health and poor hygiene. Women are the main caretakers for sick children and adults.
- High prices charged for water, whether by private or public companies, force poor women to buy from vendors or use contaminated or unsafe water.
- A woman living in a slum in Kenya pays at least five times more for one liter of water than a woman in the United States.
- Women have an important, but often unacknowledged role in water management, as collectors, porters, storers and users of water, in rural and urban settings.
CI plans to make a difference by campaigning hard through consumer organizations this year on water issues that particularly affect women.
There are many links between the social movements for women's and consumer's rights, the CI report says.
Promotion of women's rights has been a powerful force behind campaigns for consumer protection against infant formulas, tobacco, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and sexist advertising, the report says. And now women need to act over their needs as consumers of water.
The women's movement and consumer movements both play a prominent role in the global movement to empower civil society, the report says. There have been important successes to show in campaigning for national legislation, public awareness and empowerment of individuals and communities to defend their rights as women and as consumers.
Stearman says that some of the biggest consumer organizations in the West, including the biggest--the Consumers Union in the United States--started their campaigns on issues of rights. CI hopes to direct some of their efforts towards the right to clean water, particularly for women.
Copyright © 2004, IPS - Inter Press Service