What Does Water Have to Do with Domestic Violence?

Tuesday, May 16th, 2023

This is another entry in a series where we answer questions we’ve received from curious donors, website visitors, and casual commenters.

As we’ve said before, it can be difficult for those of us who have always had water piped into our homes to understand what it’s like not to have water. We haven’t needed to trek long distances, brave harsh wilderness, wait in long lines, or dig scoop holes into dry riverbeds to obtain often-contaminated water. These human experiences are at the core of what we aim to alleviate, but the water crisis is massive, nuanced, and ever-changing.

Our staff in the United States and overseas in our target areas live and breathe water, sanitation, and hygiene—yet we’re still learning new things every day. This series aims to share what we’ve learned along the way with anyone skeptical, curious, or (our favorite) thirsty for knowledge.

Note: People and community names have been changed to protect identities.

It’s been over a year since I first read the words of a 16-year-old girl named Aminata from Sierra Leone, but her words haven’t left me. 

“According to my age, I am still a child, but pressure from family led me to marriage,” Aminata said. 

“My family was not able to provide for me, and the next best thing [was for me] to be sent to be married to a man in the village. Marrying in the village means my husband is able to help my family on the farm with no payment: the only benefit my family gets. I already have a son, who is one year old. Going to fetch water, I have to go with my child. [There is] nobody to leave him [with]. 

“One day, I left my son sleeping in my room and quickly went to fetch water. By the time I returned, he was crying badly. My husband was standing by the door waiting for me to return. [As soon as] I put the container down, I was greeted with a slap so hard I saw a flash. I will never leave my child unattended again, but walking that long distance is a burden on me. Not having a well close to the house is a big problem for me and other people in the village. I can speak for every woman and girl when I say if we don’t get help, things are going to get worse for us. Our husbands do not care what happens. All they know is: ‘where is the food?’ and ‘where is the water to drink and bathe?’”

Thankfully, Aminata’s village now has several water sources, so no one who lives there needs to journey far for water anymore. But her story isn’t unique, and countless women and girls still suffer the same fate due to water scarcity.  

In areas where water is scarce, so much time is wasted traveling, waiting in line, collecting, and bartering for water. This leaves little time or energy for essential everyday tasks—tasks that women and girls are then held accountable for neglecting.

“Because women bear the primary responsibility for water acquisition and use, they are more vulnerable to adverse consequences associated with water carrying, such as physical strain (Geere et al., 2010; Geere & Cortobius, 2017), miscarriage (Collins et al., 2019), and attack from animals and people (Kirchner, 2007; Mugumya et al., 2017; Stevenson et al., 2012). Women are also more likely to be shamed and blamed for the inability to meet standards of cleanliness for their homes, children, and families (Chipeta, 2009), even when water shortages that restrict these activities are outside of their control.”

WIREs Water Journal
Made by Jamie Heminway in Canva.

Worldwide, women and girls collect water for 80% of households without water onsite. UN Women estimates that every day, women and girls spend around 40 billion hours per year collecting water — an unfathomable number. And because water scarcity is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s where the majority of those hours are lost. Both the short- and long-term effects of this loss are devastating. 

“Due to the long distance, [I] am not able to collect enough water to be used for my daily activities,” said Margaret, a housewife from Uganda. 

“We waste a lot of time going to collect water alongside concentrating on other domestic activities. Our children are starved while at home, and our husbands beat us for delaying at the source, which has led to several failed marriages in this village.”

The causes of domestic violence are complicated, amorphous, and still under study. Difficult living situations and stress (like those caused by a lack of access to water) only increase the odds of violence, especially within the confines of a household. Also, polygynous marriages (where a man has more than one wife) have higher rates of intimate partner violence, and these unions are more common in some countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

So, if the odds of violence at home are so high, why would sub-Saharan girls and women choose to enter into a marriage rather than pursue a career or venture into a business on their own? 

In the United States and much of the Western world, the concept of marriage has shifted over the last century from a necessity to a matter of personal choice. But in sub-Saharan Africa, 12% of girls are married before the age of 15 and 37% before the age of 18. When girls are saddled with a home and children so young, education isn’t always seen as a priority by their parents.

Made by Jamie Heminway in Canva.

“My parents were late in enrolling me to school,” said 13-year-old Mahawa from Sierra Leone. 

“I understand their fears of having a young girl walk almost ten miles, five days a week,” Mahawa continued. 

“I feel really bad because most of the girls my age are now in junior secondary school. I am 13 years old now and still in class two. I know sooner than later, I will be sent off to be married. I can never catch up.”

And although her parents withheld Mahawa from enrolling due to concerns about her safety on the ten-mile walk she made to school every day, they still kept her out of school—a choice they may not have made for a son. 

“I would have liked to go to school until I finish secondary school, but the chances of that are very slim to none,” Mahawa said.

“Not having water at the village also [affects] my being so far behind in school. I first have to take ten or more trips to the swamp every morning to fetch water and after that I am tired and hungry. Most times I go to school on an empty [stomach], and after the long walk, I cannot pay attention to the teachers. Not having clean water at the village causes a lot of delays. I don’t know how much longer I will be able to do this routine. I am honestly tired. Marrying at this age might be better.

This lack of education is exacerbated by the high rates of pregnancy among teens and young women in sub-Saharan Africa, which is a thorny issue in and of itself. But in some cases, the pregnancy itself is not what a girl’s parents will find objectionable, but the fact that it occurred out of wedlock. 

Due to this, young girls are often placed into marriages as soon as a man offers for them, especially if her family is poor and needs the man’s marriage gift (which is still practiced in sub-Saharan Africa) to help provide for the rest of the household. While some countries in the region have outlawed child marriage, not all have, and most countries allow exceptions. 

“I started school when I was ten years old, old enough to walk the more than three miles to the nearest school,” said 17-year-old Mariatu in Sierra Leone. 

“I am currently in class five, making it difficult for me to complete my education. I have a man that has spoken to my family for my hand in marriage. From the look of things, I cannot continue with my education because all the other children that have graduated from secondary school have all been pregnant out of wedlock. It is a big sign of disrespect to bear a child out of wedlock. My parents are very protective of me. Walking to the stream by myself is forbidden for fear of being attacked in the wilderness. [No] young girl growing up in the village is without the unwanted advances from older men. Sometimes, a denial will lead to beatings or physical and verbal abuse.”

The other side of this issue is that once water access improves, so too do the lives of the women and girls fetching it. And while we can’t say that improving water access alone will improve the outlook for domestic violence in sub-Saharan Africa, we can listen to the voices of the women and girls who become more independent with improved water access.

“I use less time in fetching water and spend my quality time doing what I love,” said Millicent from Kenya. Her community has had improved water access for over a year now, and the difference in her life is clear. 

“The water from this water point has enabled me [to] be a farmer throughout the year, in rainy and drought seasons. It has helped me plant all types of vegetables. This has really transformed my life. I no longer depend on my husband and children for money, because now I can make my own money.

“Having reliable access to this water point will enable me to do all my domestic activities like washing clothes, cooking food, and cleaning my home [on] time,” said 25-year-old Rachel from Uganda. 

This water point has reduced the long distance I used to walk to collect water, which caused several [instances of] domestic violence in our home. I am happy we are now living happily.

“I am happy that there is now safe and pure drinking water in this village. We children have always felt overworked and sometimes faced child abuse at home from our parents when there is no water to use. Then came a liberator for us,” said 14-year-old Anna from Sierra Leone. 

“Thank you for providing us with clean water. This water point will help me to live a healthy life.”

Everyone suffers in a water crisis situation. But when you decide where your help is most needed, remember the words of these women and girls, just like I remember Aminata’s story still. You may soon be reading the quotes and seeing the faces of others whose lives have suddenly become so much easier with access to water – thanks to you.

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Jamie Heminway

Jamie is a storyteller by nature. In joining the Water Project, she’s finally found a workplace where that pesky bleeding heart of hers can be put to use (and, less importantly, that BA in English Language & Literature from New England College).