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Women & WASH: why we can't achieve equality without inclusively managed WASH

In the lead up to International Women’s Day, 8 March 2017, we look at the important role water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) plays in achieving gender equality, and why we need women to participate in the planning and management of WASH systems to achieve universal access.
Women & WASH: why we can't achieve equality without inclusively managed WASH

We need an integrated approach to achieving gender equality (SDG5) and universal access to safe water and sanitation (SDG6)

Gender inequality remains a persistent challenge for countries worldwide and presents a major obstacle to sustainable development. The elimination of discrimination against women and girls and the achievement of equality between women and men is critical to development, the realisation of human rights for all, humanitarian action, peace and security. Through the global agenda for development, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 seeks to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030. Below we set out the case for why achieving this will not be possible without also achieving SDG 6 - ensuring the availability and sustainable management of safe water and sanitation for all, and why SDG 6 requires the meaningful inclusion and contribution of women.

Gender equality and SDG6

Women and girls bear a disproportionate burden from a lack of access to safe water and sanitation. They are often responsible for water-related work, including the collection and management of household water supply; in some cases traveling long distances to collect and carry heavy loads of water, risking personal safety and missing out on opportunities to go to school or participate in other economic activities such as paid work.

A lack of safe, private sanitation facilities undermines women’s and girls’ ability to access critical resources and opportunities to improve their livelihoods. It can make it impossible for women and girls to attend school or work, especially during menstruation. Inadequate facilities also increases the risk of violence. As the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation reported in a statement at the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council in 2016, “Women fear violence by men in public toilets and open defecation sites, and on their way to both. It also occurs at places to collect water, bathe and wash clothes.” As a result, poor access to adequate toilets and water supply limits the ability of women and girls to participate in public life.

Further challenges arise when women fall pregnant and have children. Poor WASH access increases the risk of maternal, neonatal and childhood illness and death. WASH related diarrhoeal illness is the second highest cause of child mortality worldwide,1 and the risk of long-term disorders, including stunting, environmental enteropathy and impaired cognitive development in children is also exacerbated by poor WASH.2  Beyond the maternal and child health (MCH) risks associated with poor WASH at home, health care facilities around the world are also challenged by limited access to a safely managed water supply or sanitation facilities. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 38% of health care facilities in low and middle income countries have no access to safe water and almost one in five lack improved sanitation facilities. Poor access to safe water and sanitation facilities comprises the ability of health workers to provide basic health care for mothers and their babies.

It is evident that when communities have access to safe water and sanitation women and girls benefit. Improved water provision and access to sanitation will directly impact on the health and wellbeing of women; providing greater opportunities to participate in education and economic activities, and impact positively on social outcomes - including reducing the risk of violence against women and girls, reducing poverty and supporting a more equal distribution of unpaid work between men and women.3  In order to ensure the provision of water and sanitation is effective and sustainable however, we must look beyond viewing equality as having been achieved when women have access to these services and facilities, and focus also on the meaningful participation and inclusion of women in decision-making processes. 

Equality beyond access - Integrated Water Management requires gender equality

The SDGs call for an integrated approach to development; UN Water strengthens the case for this approach by demonstrating how mainstreaming water and sanitation across all sectors is of critical importance to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is clear that we cannot achieve SDG 5 without SDG 6, and vice versa. Ensuring universal access to safe water and sanitation requires a focus on vulnerable and marginalised groups, particularly women and girls. Conversely, without the genuine participation and empowerment of women we will not be successful in realising safe water and sanitation for all.  

In the 1992 ‘Dublin Principles’ (recognised as the foundational principles of Integrated Water Management), Principle No. 3 acknowledges the central role women play in the provision, management and safeguarding of water. It also recognises that despite the clear role of women as providers and users of water, this has typically not been reflected in institutional arrangements for the development and management of water resources. Women continue to face a number of barriers to participating at all levels of water resource management, including in decision-making and implementation processes.

In acknowledging these barriers, the post-2015 sustainable development agenda explicitly sets out the inclusion and participation of women as central to success. SDG target 5.5 seeks to ensure women's full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life. Target 5.A, 5.B and 5.C meanwhile, acknowledge the economic reforms, access to information technology and adoption of legislation and policy required to achieve this goal. We believe that achieving any of the targets set out in SDG 6 will not be possible without also accomplishing SDG 5.

A recent submission to the United Nation’s High-level Panel on Water on behalf of the Australian Water Partnership, Gender and SDG 6: the critical connection, clearly outlines the need for gender equality to achieve SDG 6. One of the paper’s key messages is that the “proactive and deliberate participation of women and gender-discriminated peoples at all stages is needed.” In order to strengthen the sustainability of water infrastructure, sanitation facilities and water management systems we need inclusive and gender sensitive project design.

Where to from here?

So how do we take gender equality from theory and weak policy, to meaningful inclusion and change? Firstly formal structures need to be reviewed and changes are required at multiple levels of power and decision making.4 Bennett et al. (2008) suggests project planners and technicians also need to be open to ‘seeing’ rather than automatically imposing predetermined understandings of what gender equality looks like in a given context.

This is supported by the AWP Framing Paper which argues that the most effective actions for achieving gender equality in water governance policies and programs are to engage women and gender experts at all stages of a program’s development; provide strong leadership to drive gender equality; and collaborate with women’s organisations.

As the paper suggests, we need to move beyond a singular focus on meeting women’s material needs (the provision of safe water and sanitation) to a focus on women’s practical and strategic needs to increase their active participation in decision-making processes. It is not enough to provide access to improved WASH facilities. To achieve both gender equality and universal access to safe water and sanitation it is critical that women are involved in the development and management of water resources and WASH services from policy development through to project design, implementation and management.

Being bold for change on International Women's Day

For International Women's Day 2017 the call has been made for everyone to #BeBoldForChange and lead within their own spheres of influence to take bold pragmatic action to accelerate gender parity. To help forge a better working world, one that is more gender inclusive. As the organisers of the day promote: "through purposeful collaboration, we can help women advance and unleash the limitless potential offered to economies the world over." Through our own spheres of influence as water professionals and leaders we have an opportunity to be catalysts for change. To seek out and meaningfully include women not just in the provision of water supply and sanitation facilities but in the planning, development and management of our water resources. Taking an Integrated Water Management approach to this challenge will set us on a path to achieving not only SDG 5 and 6 but the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development more broadly. 


Sinéad Lehane
Communications Officer

Interested in building your capacity in WASH programming?

Ensuring the active participation of women in projects from the very start of program design, through to the development and management of resources improves the sustainability of WASH projects and strengthens the outcomes for both safe access to WASH and gender equality in communities. Building capacity to support the sustainable and inclusive development of WASH programming will be necessary to achieving this.

Recognising the vital importance of building capacity in WASH programming, the International WaterCentre (IWC) has developed an eight-week Introduction to WASH for Development online course. It combines real-world experience in Integrated Water Management and WASH with expert knowledge, to deliver an engaging course that addresses the key intersectoral issues around WASH and shares the lessons and evidence-based strategies to strengthen the enabling environment and support inclusive planning, design and implementation of WASH programs.  

You can learn more about the IWC’s online training and other capacity development initiatives here or enrol in the Introduction to WASH for Development here.

1.Clasen et al. (2014) Estimating the impact of unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene on the global burden of disease: evolving and alternative methods, Journal of Tropical Medicine and International Health vol 19(8) pp. 884-893

2. Engel and Susilo, (2014) Shaming and Sanitation in Indonesia: A Return to Colonial Public Health Practices? Development and Change vol 45(1): 157-178

3. Grant, M., Huggett, C., Willetts, J., (2016) Gender and SDG 6: the Critical Connection – A Framing Paper for the High-Level Panel on Water, Australian Water Partnership:

4.V Bennett, S Dávila-Poblete & M Rico (2008), Water and Gender: The unexpected connection that really matters, Journal of International Affairs, vol 61(2), pp. 107-126


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