Water and Women: A Collective Vision for the Future

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UNU INWEH
Appropriate water, sanitation, and hygiene allows healthy children to unlock their learning potential.

Almost 25 years ago, women and men gathered in Dublin, Ireland, for an international conference on water and the environment. The Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development agreed upon at this event was a pivotal document six months before Rio and the Earth Summit.1 The Dublin Statement provided the first official recognition of women as central to “the provision, management, and safeguarding of water” (Principle 3). Participants of the Dublin conference started us on our current path towards realizing the complex and critical linkages between water and women. Most recently, through the Water for Life Decade,2 this path has led to Agenda 2030 (the Sustainable Development Goals), which includes global goals on both gender equality (SDG Goal 5) and water and sanitation (SDG Goal 6).3

This publication draws attention and clarity to the linkages between gender equality and water and sanitation. The contents of this special issue have been brought together, using different perspectives, to highlight the progress, solutions, and remaining challenges that exist at the interfaces between women and water since the Dublin Statement. Contributors have provided innovations in policy, human rights, the monitoring, collection, and storage of water, meeting water, sanitation, and hygiene needs, and the valuing of water for reasons beyond its economic purpose. We now, as a collective, envision the future of women and water. Each of our authors responded to the following queries:

  • In 2041 (25 years from now), in relation to women and water, I think that water will…
  • In 2041 (25 years from now), in relation to women and water, I believe that women will…
  • In 2041 (25 years from now), within the context of women, my hope for water is…
  • In 2041 (25 years from now), I wish that women’s relationship with water will be…

The following reflects their responses as our shared vision of a future in which solutions for women and water continue to improve this essential interface.

Women and Water in 2041

Now that it is 2041, our collective efforts have produced a dramatic transformation in the relationship between water and women:

  • Water is valued for its social, health, and cultural aspects and not simply as an economic good;
  • Participatory, evidence-based action is the norm and not the exception;
  • Policies, practice, and research are mutually reinforcing and informing;
  • There is respect for and incorporation of local and traditional knowledge;
  • Gender disaggregated data demonstrate equity, for example, in levels of access to water and sanitation; and,
  • Access to water and sanitation is guaranteed and affordable for all and water is valued according to its economic, health, social, and cultural worth.
Authors
Figure 1. Linkages between water and women.

We now see a future emerging where a focus on women’s relationship to water has catalyzed change (Figure 1). However, this future is set against a backdrop of climate change which, if unchecked and not urgently dealt with by governments and the international community, will result in severely reduced water resources for large populations. As such, water scarcity and inequities in access will be a major threat to human survival and may severely compromise the stability of nation-states unless we act now to mitigate against and limit climate change. At the local level, this will impact on how people prioritize water uses between water for domestic, livestock, food, and productive uses. Not only will this increase the burden currently borne inequitably by women and girls in rural areas in low and middle-income countries but also create an additional burden for marginalized women in high-income countries, as evidenced through historical lessons such as the California droughts and lead pipes in Flint, Michigan. While impacts on large-scale conflict are debatable, at the local level, there are already examples of confrontations between neighboring communities as groups of people encroach on lands and water resources not previously contested.

If we had allowed the status quo to continue unchecked, women and girls would still bear the brunt of the burden to secure water for their children, households, and families. It would take longer to collect water, and at boreholes, fights between women of all ages would destabilize the strength and integrity of what we know as community. Conflicts between people with different needs and priorities would require deliberate efforts to mobilize collective, community-based actions in establishing, constructing, and politically managing safe and predictable water sources—especially in support of the most vulnerable in society (the marginalized, impoverished, and rural-based). Take Faith, for example.

Faith was born in 2016 in a refugee camp in Southern Sudan. She now lives in a small village with her four children aged eight, six, two, and six months. Faith spends her days searching for food and water since the local borehole dried up in last year’s drought. She searches the area surrounding the village for scraps of leaves and grasses that must do until the next rare humanitarian food drop occurs. Her children are frequently sick, always underweight, and often too tired to accompany her on her long foraging walks. Faith is illiterate and has received no formal education because she had to stay at home and help her mother with domestic chores, including fetching water for the family. She is unable to participate in any activity to generate income and is dependent upon the meager resources shared by the community. Faith had listened to the excited and eager anticipation of her mother that a clean, safe, and consistent water supply for their village would bring food security and an opportunity for Faith and her siblings to attend school. Her mother’s optimism faded when they had to flee their village when the droughts came, and when the world appeared to abandon any hope that the conflict in the Sudan would be resolved. Faith now sees no future for herself and her children other than the persistent pains of grinding poverty.

Corinne Schuster-Wallace
A newborn at Kawolo Hospital in Uganda. Water security is critical to a good start in life.

However, women and men have had an opportunity over the past 25 years to change the status quo. Women’s voices needed to be effectively heard; people needed to recognize their wisdom, strengths, roles, and responsibilities because business as usual was likely to make it difficult for women to have a distinct voice in water matters today, in 2041.

Our hopes became the new reality; a time and place where groups of women emerged as social entrepreneurs, tackling the challenge of water access for a range of different priorities and uses. A time where water bodies, wetlands, and aquifers are valued for their social, aesthetic, cultural, ecosystem service, and economic roles. A time when women have innovated creative ways to harvest, store, and treat water, establish food security patterns, and created socially shared and collective engagement processes where everyone benefits, not simply the privileged and economically rich. Water is now seen as a life-sustaining link for women, and women as a sustaining link for water, precipitating a shift from water carriers and fetchers to water stewards and managers. As gender equity advanced over the past quarter of a century, a shared and enhanced capacity emerged to deal with water challenges, to ensure universal access to WaSH, to realize the human rights to water and sanitation, and to share water burdens and responsibilities equitably. Water became not a domestic burden that women are culturally prescribed to secure and manage but an essential resource that is the shared responsibility of men and women. In this manner, emerging examples of social resilience and strength have not only promoted economic growth, social development, and environmental integrity but also mitigated potential conflict and political challenges, shoring up institutions and governance structures. Our aspirations culminated in a hoped-for balance between the need to secure, preserve, and enhance our water resources and the need to protect, extend, and defend the rights of women and girls (Figure 2).

Authors
Figure 2. The start of a journey—hopes for water and women from 2016.

Ultimately, our vision of a tomorrow where women do not have to spend hours securing water, are not threatened by water-borne illnesses, and do not have to watch their children suffer unnecessary diseases and even die for lack of potable water has been realized. Solutions articulated 25 years ago gave us hope that, when leaders in their fields have such aspirations, water resources, water management, and WaSH in the world we want is actually within our grasp.4 This is why instead of Faith’s story, we are able to look to people like Charity to see how far we have really come.

Charity was born in a remote village in southern Uganda in 2016. Her mother was a member of the first water committee in her village and was instrumental in implementing a rainwater capture system in the village. Her uncle learned how to repair the pump on the borehole. Together, they provided adequate amounts of safe water to the entire village. This meant that she and her four siblings were free of the responsibility of seeking out and collecting water for the household. She finished public school in her village and attended high school at a regional facility. When married, she moved to her husband’s town where she helped the community to apply the lessons from her home community to get reliable, safe water. She helped to have the local school rehabilitated with the addition of latrines for both girls and boys and the provision of a new borehole that serviced the health center and the school. Both were equipped with handwashing stations that were supplied with soap by women in the town who produced a liquid soap sold in the local market. Charity also organized a local market garden, using fertilizers from the toilet waste. She now has three children of her own, all of whom attend school on a regular basis because they are not burdened with water carrying, poor sanitation, or chronic poor health. The school has good water and sanitation facilities, and Charity pays their school fees from the money she makes from her crops and from sewing clothes that she sells at the town market. The children are healthy and active and well on their way to becoming productive members of their community.

References

  1. The Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development. UN Documents [online] (1992). http://www.un-documents.net/h2o-dub.htm.
  2. Schuster-Wallace, CJ, Cave, K, Bouman-Dentener, A & Holle, F. Women, WaSH, and the Water for Life Decade. United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health and the Women for Water Partnership [online] (2015). http://inweh.unu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Women-Wash-and-Water-for....
  3. United Nations. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development [online] (2015). http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/70/1&Lang=E.
  4. Schuster-Wallace, CJ & Sandford, RW. Water in the world we want—catalysing national water-related sustainable development. United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health and United Nations Office for Sustainable Development [online] (2015). http://inweh.unu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Water-in-the-World-We-Wa....