Updated: Nov 14, 2021
In 71% of households in the world, women and girls are responsible for collecting water, and they are usually the most negatively impacted when there is none available. When water is not available near to their homes, they often need to make long journeys to carry water by hand from the closest course. In sub-Saharan Africa, the UN estimates that up to 37% of the population need to walk an average of 5km each day in order to access improved water sources. UNICEF reports that 200 million hours are spent each day by women and girls to collect water, The long journeys to collect water can also be dangerous for females, from a personal safety point of view.
If water becomes more accessible and safe, women will have more time to work and be productive, allowing them to generate income too. Women will also have more time to spend with their families or on childcare or improving their households. Conversely, women who are no longer required to fetch water can become more active in their communities. Evidence shows that with access to clean water, girls have more time for education, allowing them to become equal in knowledge to their male peers. Other evidence has shown that access to clean water can improve agricultural yields, ensuring that women and girls are not forced to forgo meals for the male members of their households. In general, a household’s health improves when there is a safe water source.
Another issue related to water and gender inequality focuses on stigmatized menstruation, as many girls do not have the access to water to properly manage menstruation. Often, schools do not have well designed toilets or facilities to offer privacy and appropriate measures for washing in school, causing many girls to drop out of school when menstruation starts. Clearly, dropping out of school impacts a woman’s economic prospects and her future in general. In some areas of the world, women are considered adults once they have their first menstruation and are encouraged to drop out of school in order to marry and start families.
Compacted across a population, this has a large impact on the country as a whole. For example, in India, if water and toilets were more accessible to 1% of girls, the country’s GDP would increase more than $5 billion. Individually, every year that a girl stays in school, her income increases by 15-25%. Without the ability to earn their own income, women are left financially dependent on men, extending and reinforcing gender stereotypes. Water plays a key role in lifting girls and women out of the poverty cycle.
Women, an untapped resource, are also often left out of decision-making processes when it comes to water infrastructure, even though they are the ones responsible for the day to day collection and use of water. In an example from Nepal, women were not consulted in the placement of water services, which men had located by the roadside. Women could not bathe or wash their clothes used for menstruation comfortably out of public view, so they ended up carrying water back to their homes several times each day, wasting time and energy.
Studies have shown that when women are involved in the planning of water resources, the projects tend to be maintained better and last longer.
Figure reproduced from Gender Equality and the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation, A report by the special rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation, Leo Heller, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner.
Water access and the empowerment of women are very closely tied. Equity improves with the improvement of access to water, as well as related fields like agriculture, health, education, and computer technology.
Gender equality relating to the basic survival need for clean water seems should be an urgent aim to enable other equal opportunites for women. For example, equal remuneration for both genders can only apply if women make it to the workforce. Working on keeping girls in school so that they can one day hold jobs needs to be addressed first.