“Water and sanitation…is MDG unfinished business” — Executive Director

Speech by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the Launch of the Liberia and Sierra Leone Regional WEE/WASH Programme on 17 March 2016 in New York


This is a very important initiative. In the Millennium Development Goals, one of the areas in which the world did not manage to perform satisfactorily was in this area of water and sanitation. It is MDG unfinished business.

We cannot talk about many of the things we want to achieve in the Sustainable Development Goals when people do not have a place to relieve themselves and clean water to drink. Because water is life and sanitation is dignity. And the dignity of women and girls is significantly affected when they do not have these basic services.

Now, post-Ebola in these two countries, we know a lot about how much hygiene can change the game. It can kill a nation. It can bring down the GDP. It can make us lose our loved ones. So the stakes are high.

Projections tell us that Ebola or Zika are not the last epidemics the world will see. There will be other epidemics. What will differentiate our capacity to survive an epidemic or the extent to which we are affected by it is our capacity to fight back. It is the strength of our systems, the availability of infrastructure and the strength of our women.

When we discussed with OXFAM our involvement in an ongoing process for recovery in these two countries, we chose to be in this space. With OXFAM’s presence there is a comparative advantage in partnering because it already is doing something about provision of sanitation and water, about addressing dignity and life. 

I want to commend the two Presidents and the Ministers who have been the activists in front and who also brought with them the political capital and the leadership support of these two countries.

This project has got four pillars. The first pillar is WASH itself. Why WASH? Because if we have water and sanitation we address the health issues and the health needs. Without these, we cannot advance in other areas of empowerment. If people are sick and they do not have the necessary hygiene, we are not going in the right direction.

The burden of unpaid care work is placed on women and girls—even if we get them to be traders and all the other things we want them to do. We need to address this issue because the provision of water and sanitation is what is going to keep that girl at school. There is such injustice in a little girl carrying litres of water on her head, with her small body, and her short legs, in order to quench the thirst of muscular men. I look at this girl, and say, where is the brother, where is the father? Where are the strong, big people in that family? She is not going to go to school. Why is she carrying water and not doing other things that other children are doing?

It means we have not provided the infrastructure. This girl’s experience is the trade-off of a failure of infrastructure. We did that. Why must the girl children carry the burden of supporting the infrastructure of our countries? We as parents, we as communities, we as leaders, where are we when that is happening? We should think about all of these significant issues when we are doing a programme like this. We are all together trying to fit this very important change into the lives of these women and these girls.

We are addressing nutrition because once they are able to have access to clean water, then they are able to have healthy water to drink. We are addressing hygiene. We are addressing unpaid care work. The economic empowerment aspect that we bring into it is that we are saying this infrastructure does not have to be provided by a company from somewhere far away that wins a tender and makes a lot of profit. We are saying the women themselves who need this must benefit, from hygiene and reduced unpaid care work, and then from making money. That is, on its own, the most critical part of the empowerment of women. Then we can talk agriculture and all these other things. But we’ve taken care of the most basic needs of these women. I want us also to be ambitious and to deal with all the other issues that women traders want us to address as well as the other aspects of our economic empowerment.

WASH has its own value chain as an industry, because infrastructure is an industry. It requires technical skills. We want women to be plumbers. We want women to be engineers. There will be maintenance needs. They must provide chlorine to clean the water, etc. Someone must fix the pump, someone must make the knob to close the tap, etc. Someone must have the cement and bricks to build. Someone must provide the parts for making the toilet. Where are all those things coming from?

We must insert women strategically. And we can do this for the whole world. Why are we, UN Women, existing everywhere if not to work together across the world with other international organizations so that together we address market failure in a manner that provides true economic empowerment and shared prosperity that addresses the basic needs of people?

This is what we are trying to do here—and failure is not an option.