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Thursday, 21 March 2013

Pain in the neck?

Feeling the weight of water in South Sudan.  Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

‘They’re so graceful!’ ‘ They make it look so easy!’  ‘Of course they’ve been doing it all their lives.’

These might be common reactions to seeing women and children in developing countries carrying heavy loads on their heads.There’s a sort of residual feeling that it must be good for the posture: none of that weighed-down, lop-sided lugging of our weekly shop in a plastic bag that’s cutting into our fingers.

But the reality is distressingly different. It’s one of the reasons why Toilet Twinning is concerned with the holistic improvement of water supply as well as sanitation, latrine provision and hygiene education.

We know that women in communities without access to running water spend hours of their lives fetching and carrying - and the carrying is almost always done on their heads.They are frequently transporting the equivalent of 20 litre-bottles of water and often walking barefoot along paths that may be steep and stony, unstable, or fraught with potential dangers from both humans and animals. And perhaps they are doing all this on an empty stomach or during periods of sickness.

Professor Ray Lloyd, a sports scientist at the University of Abertay Dundee, was concerned about this. He conducted research on a group of 24 South African women from the Xhosa people and compared them with nine British Territorial Army Women.

His tests found that life-long experience of carrying loads on the head did not make it physically easier to do so, nor did it protect against pain and discomfort.

‘All the experienced head-loaders reported that neck pain was a big problem for them,’ he said, adding: ‘They reported having to give neck massages to their mothers and grandmothers whenever they returned from fetching water.

‘All the women agreed that they would prefer an alternative method of transporting essential items such as water and firewood.’

And the pain factor is just one part of this scandal - imagine having to commit a major part of your day to collecting water, and perhaps missing out on schooling to do so.

This World Water Day (22 March), feel free to express some righteous anger about this! Could you encourage your community group, workplace, school, church etc to twin their toilets? Or use social media inform others about Toilet Twinning? Or maybe write something for a publication you have an interest in? Let’s keep at it until water and sanitation are a universal right, not a privilege.

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