Water and Women: Struggles to Survive, Potentials to Thrive, Opportunities to Lead

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Andy Hall / Oxfam
Potable water brings joy to women of all ages.

At a fundamental level, the gendered roles that women have assumed over time—reproductive, productive, and community management—are significantly impacted by lack of water, poor water quality, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene facilities (WaSH).1,2 Almost 25 years ago, through the Dublin Statement,3 women were officially recognized as playing significant roles in the water sector: providing, managing, and protecting water for themselves, their families, and their communities.

In addition to being a biological necessity to sustain life, water is important in many social, cultural, and economic contexts. It is hard for women in high income countries to imagine going to a health facility to deliver a baby and finding that there is no running water or toilet facilities. Similarly, caring for children and/or sick family members in the absence of convenient, potable water demands multiple trips to distant locations to collect water for food, laundry, hygiene, and cleaning. Watering crops and cattle for food and monetary gain can be futile during dry seasons or prolonged droughts. While best placed to make decisions to improve community WaSH and water management, due to the burdens placed upon women, the time-opportunity costs are usually too high for them to engage meaningfully in these dialogues even if they are invited to participate in management decisions.

Globally, corruption and misappropriation are rife in the water sector, and, because of their roles and socio-economic status, many women fall victim to their effects.4 These can include bartering bodies for service and risking personal safety to travel further due to the failure of poorly constructed local water facilities.

Many women around the world face these challenges on a daily basis. However, globally, more and more women are (re)claiming their rights to, responsibilities for, and control over water, water management, and WaSH. This special issue highlights how women are creating positive change for themselves, their children, and their communities, and how technologies can be employed to empower women in these efforts.

Depending upon the lens applied to water, solutions will be widely different, but until now, we have not really utilized a gendered lens. There are many lessons to be learned from, and solutions to be found by, applying a gendered lens to water. These stories need to be built upon and shared.

The collection of papers in this issue begins to focus a gendered lens on education, child survival, community leadership, human rights, economic roles, and environmental stewardship. In highlighting the issues and some exciting solutions in each of these areas, it is not our intention to negate the dominant male discourse, but rather to supplement it with unique, varied, and essential perspectives that women bring to bear around water and water security. It is only in engaging both men and women that true sustainability will be achieved within Agenda 2030 (the Sustainable Development Goals). To harness the abilities and resources of women in a productive and proactive manner, it is essential to achieve principles of transparency, accountability, equity, equality, and social justice. This cannot be achieved unless women are educated and empowered, holding positions as researchers, practitioners, leaders, and politicians across government, utilities, communities, and sectors.

Ultimately, it will take women to shift the value of water from that of vested self-interest to its full worth and significance, not only as an economic good, but as a resource for life, health, well-being, recreation, reflection, and inspiration.

References

  1. Moser, CON. Gender Planning and Development: Theory, Practice and Training (Routledge, New York City, 1993).
  2. Stanley, AC, Schuster-Wallace, CJ, Watt, MS & Willms, D. An NGO framework addressing women’s double jeopardy: HIV/AIDS and WaSH (under review).
  3. The Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development [online] (1992). http://www.wmo.int/pages/prog/hwrp/documents/english/icwedece.html.
  4. World Water Day: Corruption in the water sector’s costly impact. Transparency International [online] (March 21, 2016). http://www.transparency.org/news/feature/world_water_day_corruption_in_t....