Imagine you’re a 12-year-old Indian girl living in the slums.
If you’re lucky, your mother earns a meagre wage working for some of the upper class families, spending 12-hours a day cleaning their home and raising their children.
While you miss her during the day, you know that the money she brings in will put some food on the table. Sometimes you wish the food was better, or that it wasn’t cooked in dirty water, gathered from the filthy river 10 kilometres away.
One day you wake up, and, while you’re urinating outside your home, you spot blood for the first time in your underwear. Because of the taboos surrounding blood in your country, you’re scared and disgusted by what’s happening.
You want to wash it off as quickly as possible and pretend it never happened. The problem is the only water you can access is dirty, having lain stagnant in the gutter for months.
Some water is better than no water right? Wrong. But being young, uneducated and poor, you have no idea, so use what you can to save face.
Sometimes, you wish you had some privacy. A door you could close while you do your private business, hiding you from the prying eyes of the men outside. But because you’ve never seen a toilet, you’re unsure what that would look like.
So you wait until it gets dark to slowly creep outside, hoping no one hears you, that no one touches you. You’re forced to deal with this new blood, the fear of sexual assault and the indignity of doing something so private in such a public way.
Chances are that if you’re in Australia, you’ve never had to suffer the indignity of defecating in public, having people stare at you as you do your private business, or watch you try and grapple with the new reality of bleeding every month.
Unfortunately, this is the life millions of girls growing up in underdeveloped countries experience, where access to clean, running water and a decent toilet is nothing but a dream.
Having your first period is traumatic enough, but we are lucky to never have to think about being exposed and out in the open at such a vulnerable time of our lives.
And for these girls, it doesn’t end there: not having clean water means you can’t clean yourself up well, which in turn means you’re reluctant to go to school. Over a lifetime, this amounts to a lot of missed school time, multiplying their disadvantage.
I saw all this and much more when I visited two Indian slums late last year as part of my work with WaterAid, a global charity that helps the world’s poorest people gain access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene.
In Australia, we know better than most how important water is to survival. Every summer, we face the prospect of drought, and our hearts collectively break when we hear about the thousands of people and animals affected by the lack of rainfall.
But despite the hardships faced by farmers and smaller rural communities, most of us rarely — if ever — have to worry about the most basics of water supply: a running tap, clean water, a private place to go to the toilet.
And while a lack of clean, accessible water affects everyone, it is women and young girls whose lives are made so much worse when water is not a given, but a hard-fought commodity.
Because it is women who are responsible for getting water; for cooking, cleaning and raising children. It is women who do without, who so often have to give up on their own desires, opportunities and dignity to cater to their communities.
I’ll never forget seeing women in Timor-Leste getting up hours before their husbands, big, heavy wooden barrels on their back, climbing up steep mountains only to stand, watching as water trickled in, bit by bit, for hours.
Then they have to walk back the same distance, but with water now on their backs, often through dangerous landscapes and at risk of sexual assault.
But how does this relate to people here? Well, it’s simple enough. The Water Challenge, a month-long fundraising event in which people across the country make water their only beverage in March, is coming up, and if you sign up and get a few friends to sponsor you, you will help the one in nine people in the world who don’t have access to clean water.
On top of that, you’ll get healthier: drinking sugary drinks can have disastrous effects on your health, leading to weight gain, tooth decay and insulin resistance to name just a few of the known health issues.
I’m going to do it and I’ve already signed up. Just think, every dollar you raise will help some of the world’s poorest families get access to clean water.
And it will help those girls — and their mothers, aunts, sisters and cousins — have a chance at a safe and fulfilling life.
Elyse Knowles is a model, author and WaterAid ambassador.
Sign up for the WaterAid water challenge here.