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The Globe and Mail

Taps and toilets: Empowering women and girls in Madagascar

Nicole Hurtubise is the chief executive officer of WaterAid Canada.

This week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of International Development and La Francophonie, are in Antananarivo, Madagascar, for the 2016 Francophonie Summit. The first such summit for him and for the new Secretary-General of the International Organization for the Francophonie, Canada's former Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, it will be a proud moment for Canada, and a chance for Canada to highlight key priorities including the health and rights of women and girls.

There could hardly be a more appropriate backdrop: Madagascar. Disney portraits notwithstanding, it is one of the poorest nations on earth. This remote island off the southern coast of the African continent has struggled for years with political upheaval and a dearth of development funding.

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Lack of safe water and sanitation is a familiar, and dire, story across Madagascar. Almost half of the population does not have safe water to drink. Eighty-eight per cent do not access to basic toilets. Diarrheal illnesses – largely preventable with safe water and good hygiene practices – kill an estimated 3,000 children in Madagascar each year, and 49 per cent suffer from stunting due to severe and prolonged undernutrition. The world health organization estimates that 50 per cent of undernutrition – a major form of malnutrition – is associated with infections caused by unsafe water, poor sanitation and unhygienic practices, including not washing hands with soap.

Tragically, women and girls are nearly always affected the worst. According to UNICEF, women and girls around the world collectively spend as much as 200 million hours every day collecting water – the equivalent of more than 22,800 years. This is time spent missing playtime, school, building a livelihood and the opportunity to contribute as an empowered citizen.

Water is critical at every stage of a woman's life, from the moment a baby is born, throughout the early years and into adulthood. Imagine delivering a baby in a health facility without water, or sending your 11-year-old daughter out before dawn to climb treacherous hillside paths with a heavy jerry can to fetch dirty water before she can go to school.

Imagine the shame when a woman hasn't got a safe, private place to relieve herself at home, and must find a corner of bush or field instead. Or a teenage girl having to choose between staying at home or attending school and being shamed by classmates for leaks during menstruation because there is nowhere to change her menstrual cloths.

These issues are, of course, not limited to Madagascar. Some 650 million people around the world are still without a clean source of drinking water, and 2.4 billion do not have access to basic toilets. The resulting illnesses kill nearly 900 children a day. The lost productivity costs many developing countries as much as 5 per cent of GDP each year – that is equal to the decline in many developed nations' GDPs at the height of the 2008 economic crisis.

Mr. Trudeau has said that things can happen when we collaborate in pursuit of a larger goal. There are few things more essential to human survival than water. Without access to clean water, the world's poorest people will stay poor. The evidence clearly shows that sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene are essential if we are to empower the world's poorest and most vulnerable populations and help them reach their potential.

With access to water, girls can be freed of the tedious and often dangerous burden of travelling long distances to fetch it for their family. With access to water and toilets, girls can go to school and focus on reaching their potential, building healthier, more prosperous lives for them and their families.

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Canada's own record on the right to safe water has been highlighted in recent months, with deplorable conditions in many First Nations communities. Mr. Trudeau has already made pledges to right this wrong. This summit now presents a tremendous opportunity for Canada to champion the human right to water and sanitation both at home and abroad, and to call on other members of the Francophonie to make access to clean water in communities, schools, medical clinics and hospitals a development priority. In doing so, Canada could help deliver real gains in global development priorities.

Last year, the United Nations adopted a plan called Sustainable Development Goals. Global Goal 6 commits the global community to ensuring everyone, everywhere has access to water and sanitation by 2030.

At a time when the world faces so many crises, these goals represent a real chance at creating a fairer, healthier, more sustainable world for the next generation. Nearly every single goal – ending poverty and hunger, improving health and education, reducing inequality – comes back to water: Ending extreme poverty by 2030 and ensuring sustainable development will only be possible by achieving universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

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