Drowning is the 3rd leading cause of death of children globally after malnutrition and diarrhoea. It is a hidden pandemic. According to the UN, an estimated 236,000 people drown every year, and drowning is among the ten leading causes of death for children and youth aged 1-24 years. More than 90% of drowning deaths occur in rivers, lakes, wells and domestic water storage vessels in low- and middle-income countries, with children and adolescents in rural areas disproportionately affected. Yet outside the small global drowning prevention community, these facts are little known.
A keen swimmer, feminist and climate campaigner, Malini decided to do something about it.
In 2017 at the United Nations’ summit on Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun, Mexico, Malini launched a global campaign, Teach A Girl to Swim (TAGS) to address this hidden public health emergency. Going beyond the traditional focus of anti-drowning organisations, Malini made the link with rising flood risk due to climate change, and the specific risks posed to women and girls due to socio-cultural factors. Even though globally males have twice the drowning rates of females, studies suggest these are due to increased exposure and riskier behaviour than for females who are less likely to be as exposed or confident in water.
TAGS is the only campaign that links these interlocking issues and seeks to save lives, empower girls, and tackle climate change through a practical focus on basic swim skills and water safety for women and girls, with wider benefits for themselves and their communities.
Over the next two years, Malini swam 500+ kilometres – including several 10k marathon swims – in rivers and pools across the United Kingdom, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Philippines and Brazil to bring attention to this hidden public health emergency and its connections with the climate, disaster risk reduction and female empowerment agendas.
It is now well known that climate change is causing more extreme weather globally. But it is not as well known that floods are the leading cause of death due to climate change. In particular across Asia, where climate change is exacerbating drowning risk. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable in Asian, and similar, contexts where social customs and cultural attitudes mean females are less likely to be taught basic swimming or water safety skills which could protect them and save lives.
Working in partnership with global anti-drowning organisations like RNLI and CIPRB in Bangladesh, and with the support of climate leaders such as Christiana Figueres, Paralympian swimming gold medallist Susie Rodgers MBE, environmental scientist and broadcaster Tara Shine, and other TAGS Ambassadors and Advisers, the TAGS campaign seeks to save lives, tackle climate change and improve female empowerment, health, well-being, self-esteem and confidence through exposure to basic swimming skills and water safety.
The TAGS campaign’s policy aims advocate for:
1. Basic swim skills and water safety education to be included in primary school curricula for girls and boys in every country;
2. Basic swim skills and water safety education to be included in national Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) strategies and climate change adaptation plans in every country, with specific reference to female access;
3. Affordable, accessible and safe public swimming facilities for all, including locally-appropriate provision such as ponds and inflatable pools for training;
4. Good water quality to enable swimming in open water rivers, ponds and lakes etc.
5. Improve research and understanding of gender dimensions of drowning risk, including through improved collection of sex-disaggregated data.
Since launching the campaign, Malini has discussed it with World Health Organisation and UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction leadership in Geneva; introduced it to the Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament and Kolkata local government leaders; held events in the British Parliament and Asian Development Bank in Manila; addressed lawmakers and jurists in Myanmar; partnered with the English National Opera and schools and the Philippines Girls Guides Association, among many other advocacy activities.
Malini has a particular focus on engaging women and girls from ethnic minority communities and those with disabilities (including with charities such as Level Water). In May 2018, she started the 25k London Lido Challenge, where she swam 5k a day for 5 consecutive days in a different London Lido to promote awareness of the TAGS campaign in local communities and celebrate London’s historic lidos.
From the local to the global, TAGS Ambassadors such as Christiana Figueres and Tara Shine have broadcast the message of the campaign from the furthest reaches of the planet, including Antarctica, where they took a dip in its icy waters to celebrate womanhood, swimming and ocean health.
For more information and to join in/ support the TAGS campaign, please visit: www.teachagirltoswim.org