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Shannon Márquez: Empowering Women and Girls Through Access to Water and Sanitation

Every year on February 11, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science promotes equal access and participation for women and girls in science. This year, the day has a special focus on women as beneficiaries of and agents of change in improving access to clean water and sanitation.

Shannon Márquez is not only one of those agents of change, but also someone who pushes for gender equity along with access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services. Among her many titles, Dr. Márquez is dean of Undergraduate Global Engagement at Columbia University and a faculty member of the Columbia Water Center.

Shannon Márquez headshot
Shannon Márquez is Columbia University’s dean of Undergraduate Global Engagement, director of the Columbia University Center of Undergraduate Engagement, and a faculty member at the Columbia Water Center.

Márquez began her career as a civil and mechanical engineer, helping to make U.S. water systems compliant with the Safe Drinking Water Act. But she pivoted after realizing that most of the world’s toughest water challenges are in low- and middle-income countries. She then earned a Ph.D. in environmental health and began working on water crises in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.

“Through that work, I saw firsthand that women are disproportionately burdened with the impacts of lack of access to water as well as sanitation and hygiene,” says Márquez.

She spoke with State of the Planet about why water and sanitation problems tend to fall on the shoulders of women and girls around the world, and how sustainable development solutions around water can change their lives for the better.

The Q&A below has been edited for length and clarity.

Why are women and girls disproportionately burdened when it comes to water, sanitation, and hygiene?

Let’s start with the fact that culturally, in many parts of the world, women and girls tend to be the primary water carriers. That in and of itself is a burden, right? Fetching water can take hours a day and be very physically demanding — some barrels of water can weigh as much as a five-year-old.

Then, think about the concessions and the decisions you would have to make if you had to actually fetch water for every purpose that you need the water for, whether it’s cleaning, laundry, cooking, ingestion, maybe having a small horticultural garden.

marquez at a hand pump
Márquez visiting a rural community water source—a borehole with handpump—in Ashanti Region, Ghana.

Women also face some unique challenges with regard to menstrual hygiene management. A young woman’s trajectory towards finishing her education could be limited simply because there aren’t adequate facilities for her to handle menstruation in a school setting.

Even if you think about maternal, newborn, and child health, there are significant impacts; the reality is that there are many places in the world where health care facilities don’t have adequate access to water and sanitation. Having clean water available during childbirth, being able to address infection control, having handwashing, hygiene facilities, and other WASH interventions in a healthcare facility have been shown to reduce maternal and infant mortality. And an infant’s health outcomes in the first few years of life are largely affected by water access. In addition, many children under five face stunted growth and undernutrition as a result of poor water, sanitation, and hygiene.

There are also other safety and security issues that result from women not having proper facilities to ease themselves. Women have been brutally attacked while trying to find a place to go that’s safe. Had they had a latrine or a toilet in their compound or in their home, they may not have been subjected to that violence.

Your work has emphasized how sanitation (facilities and services that prevent contact with human waste) and hygiene (personal behaviors that improve cleanliness and good health) are important but often overlooked parts of the water access equation. Could you explain the connection?

For so long, NGOs went in and just worked on the water side of the equation without really engaging the community to talk about hygiene and sanitation. It’s now known that, without doing that, projects will be a failure. Your project will not succeed because if you’re not addressing hygiene, behavior change, and sanitation, you’re still going to have individuals who are sick from water-related challenges because of practices like open defecation, for example.

The community having an awareness, improving their education and knowledge about the interconnectedness of this issue makes a huge impact, and it positions them to be more successful when resources are available because they will be able to sustain the project.

woman uses a foot pedal to wash hands
A woman in Burundi uses a “tippy tap,” a simple and economical hand-washing station, made with commonly available materials and not dependent on a piped water supply.

This year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science is focused on progress toward the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal #6: Ensure access to water and sanitation for all. What are the major challenges to achieving this goal?

It’s complex. There are so many issues related to finance, culture, dignity, and health, so you can approach it from a lot of angles. It is not just an engineering issue, it’s also a hygiene and behavior change issue. Successful interventions should not just address the engineering challenge — digging a well or providing latrines, for example — but also look at these nexus issues related to gender, hygiene promotion, health, and behavior change.

Water, sanitation, and hygiene have to be addressed at the highest levels of government, but there also needs to be collaboration to come up with viable and innovative solutions that are really integrated within the community. So there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. The solutions have to be adapted to the environments in which they’re implemented, and the community has to be a part of it.

woman and girls in front of school
Márquez visiting with adolescent girls and women in the Indian state of Telgana.

We still need much more collaboration between stakeholders, and a lot of attention still needs to be given toward addressing basic water and sanitation issues, not just at the household level, but at the institutional level, which includes increasing access to WASH in schools and healthcare facilities. It takes initiatives such as aligning this Day of Women and Girls in Science with achieving SDG 6 to raise awareness, address the stigma, and promote more mainstreaming of these issues, to ensure that women are no longer disproportionately impacted and that it’s not put on the back burner yet again for another decade. I want us to really take advantage of the opportunity to move the needle this time; we are currently not on track the achieve the goal, so we need to leverage the opportunity to raise awareness, benchmark and track progress across countries, address gaps in financing, promote public-private partnerships for safely managed drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene services, and support other innovative solutions.

We also need to carefully monitor our progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals enabled by WASH—including the goals associated with reducing poverty, achieving food security, ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education, achieving gender equality, and combating climate change and its impacts—so that we can do some course corrections, we can pivot as needed, and really make an impact.

What do successful water projects look like?

One of the things I’ve done a lot is working with NGOs evaluating projects, trying to understand how we’re doing, what progress we’re making in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. But then also, how are we positioning each project to do more than just improving access? Beyond access, we’re looking at community-based solutions, education, and innovation that can allow projects to be more sustainable. For example, how are we engaging communities and women in particular in the process of planning and delivering water? How can we increase capacity to train women to even have water-related careers, to really be focused on the technical side of improving water and sanitation, including operation and maintenance?

group of women standing in front of a water tank
Márquez during a visit to Zimbabwe, where she was evaluating a water project that transformed the lives of women in the community.

Once you bring water to a community, it’s not just about using the water for ingestion, cooking or cleaning; it’s about improving livelihoods and leveraging the benefits of the productive use of water in communities. Improved access to safe water increases economic development; what kind of opportunities for women could be presented simply by adding water to a community? They’re able to start businesses, they’re able to generate more income. They now have more time and a precious resource that will enable them to be productive towards something else that can help them earn income, such as agriculture and raising livestock. So in terms of poverty alleviation, addressing the global water crisis is very important. That alone, though, is not enough, because we know there are nexus issues even related to climate change, nutrition, gender equality, health and food security. So my work tends to really look at all of that, and successful projects include community-based solutions, capacity-building and integrated WASH programming.

So, even though water and sanitation challenges are complex, it seems like there are also a lot of opportunities and co-benefits involved.

Exactly. When we think about the gap in addressing the Sustainable Development Goals, admittedly, it seems like a huge leap for us to still get there. But many of these other goals — around gender, food security, climate, even economic impacts and education — are enabled through improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene. So as much as we can address the interconnectedness between water, gender and health more broadly, across all of the Sustainable Development Goals, the more we can position ourselves to proactively seek innovative solutions, and the more progress we’re going to make.

Water is life, and the livelihoods of communities and women in particular are impacted through improving access to water and sanitation. That alone actually has a wonderful, transformational impact.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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