How poignant it is that Global Handwashing Day, during the greatest pandemic in modern history, falls on the same day as International Day of Rural Women? Rural women are at once the backbone of our society and the most stifled by a lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene resources.
Globally, throughout shutdowns and lockdowns, rural women are continuing to do the work to provide the sustenance that each and every one of us needs to be able to survive the day. Rural women are predominant in the field of agriculture (globally, one in three employed women works in agriculture, which rings true to Nigeria as well). Rural women protect our food security and support our nutrition, manage our land and subsequently our natural resources. They are on the frontline when the elements that support our homesteads are threatened, as they are most responsible for unpaid domestic care work.
At the same time, the most prominent advice that we have to prevent the spread of the pandemic is to wash our hands. So while some companies alter their supply chains to create hand sanitizer and new handwashing stations are installed in developed countries’ public spaces, the fact remains that over 2 billion people globally lack basic access to handwashing facilities, primarily in developing countries like Nigeria. The lack of access to WASH facilities for handwashing is most prevalent in rural communities: in Nigeria, 70% of households in rural communities do not have access to improved water supply.
These rural communities are likely to rely on water sources such as rivers, streams, ponds and unprotected wells; and in 80% of households without piped water, they rely on women and girls for water collection. Water from rivers, streams and ponds are susceptible to water borne diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery, malaria parasites etc, and ultimately, unsafe drinking water, inadequate availability of water for hygiene, and lack of access to sanitation together contribute to about 88% of deaths from diarrheal diseases.
While our world scrambles to think of innovative new ways to implement the World Health Organisation’s new guidance on hand hygiene to protect against Covid-19, we in Nigeria must remember that it is rural women who must be prioritised first. As the backbone of our country and the people most responsible for ensuring our sustenance from food and water, their access to handwashing resources is of utmost importance. What’s more: soap is not expensive, but a lack of soap is VERY expensive: it costs the world 134,147,060,000,000 Naira. It is time for Nigeria to invest in hygiene, and country-led programmes to accelerate progress and sustainable impact for the people who lack basic handwashing facilities.
My Wellbeing Foundation Africa Mamacare midwives help remedy the issue in Nigeria by going deep into rural communities, health facilities and schools to ensure water, sanitation and hygiene. We call our dedicated interlocutors ‘Sanitation Angels,’ as they deliver key knowledge and best practice techniques at public and private primary, secondary and tertiary health facilities across Nigeria.