Blog Post

Universal WaSH Access for Women Living with HIV/AIDS

Taps and toilets will be on the agenda of Dr. Jean Chamberlain as she consults on the upcoming woman and child summit later this week. Working with Canadian NGOs, such as H2O 4 All, university partners and the UN University, Dr. Chamberlain has come to realize the importance of safe water, adequate sanitation and good hygiene practices as she works to improve the conditions for mothers and babies in health care facilities in East Africa.

Millions of women caught between the harsh realities of inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene provisions (WaSH) and HIV/AIDS stand at the margins of their communities where the burdens of WaSH, HIV/AIDS and gender converge. The adverse effects of this convergence on maternal health outcomes demand collective efforts to save the lives of the world’s marginalized mothers and their babies.

In June 2010, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the G8 launched the Muskoka Initiative on maternal, newborn and child health. The upcoming summit, Saving Every Woman, Every Child, builds on Canada’s leadership in this critical area. The goal is to find new ways forward in alleviating the conditions that cost the lives of mothers and children.

According to Dr. Corinne Wallace of the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, [quote]“Comprehensive and integrated WaSH interventions present unrealized opportunities to decrease the risks faced by these vulnerable women and children, accelerating progress towards reduced child mortality and morbidity, improving maternal health, and combating HIV/AIDS”.[/quote]

Throughout her life journey a vulnerable woman living with poor WaSH access at home, at school and in healthcare facilities, is faced with challenges and risks that disproportionately affect her health and wellbeing. At the time of pregnancy and childbirth she is more likely to die from simple, preventable causes associated with poor WaSH conditions that most in the developed countries take for granted. In adulthood the effects of repeated early childhood infections related to poor water and sanitation are evident in the complications that lead to mothers dying during pregnancy. Even at the time of delivery she is at risk of infection through poor hygiene and contaminated surfaces.

Dr. Jean Chamberlain of Save the Mothers, who spends 8 months of the year in Uganda, explains, [quote]“The lack of WaSH provisions, are numerous and cannot be ignored when addressing the health and wellbeing of mothers and their babies living in WaSH constrained settings”.[/quote]

For a woman living with HIV/AIDS, the risks and challenges arising from poor access to WaSH are not confined to her own life journey, but extend to the health and wellbeing of her child. For mothers who bear the double burden of poor WaSH provisions and HIV/AIDS, the risk of adverse maternal health outcomes are too great for their struggles to be ignored.

The upcoming summit provides Canada with the opportunity to demonstrate continuing leadership in advancing the global commitment to save mothers and newborns.  However, an essential but often overlooked component of this commitment must be universal WaSH access. Through the endorsement of water, sanitation, and hygiene as critical to saving these lives, Canada can retain its position as a driving force in achieving multiple Millennium Development Goals and stimulating new initiatives towards Sustainable Development Goals post-2015.

By reaching out to the world’s marginalized mothers, saving every woman and every child is possible if, under Canada’s leadership, the international community commits to the following:

  1. Universal WaSH access as a key to saving the lives of mothers and children;
  2. Schools and healthcare facilities must be equipped with clean water and adequate sanitation;
  3. No new educational or health facility should be built without the provision of clean water and adequate sanitation;  and,
  4. All education and health care workers must be trained in and disseminate good hygiene practices.

“Ultimately,” says Dr. Jean Chamberlain, “to save every child we must first save every mother”.


Dr. Jean Chamberlain is an Associate Professor of obstetrics and gynecology at McMaster University in Canada and Executive Director of Save the Mothers, a Canadian NGO working in Uganda focusing on capacity building, mother friendly hospitals and, ensuring WaSH facilities in maternity facilities.

Dr. Corinne Schuster-Wallace is a Senior Research Fellow at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, the “UN Think Tank on Water”, focusing on sustainable WaSH and links between WaSH and maternal and child health. She holds adjunct status in the School of Geography and Earth Sciences at McMaster University.

Dr. Susan Watt is Professor Emeritus at McMaster University and a social worker with expertise in maternal and newborn healthcare. She holds adjunct status at UNU-INWEH.

For more information, contact:

Corinne Schuster-Wallace