Closing the gender gap: access to water and toilets is a justice issue for women

5 min read
Image: Women gather water from the uncovered well at the unprotected water source in Nacoto Village, Nampula Province, Mozambique. WaterAid/Eliza Powell.

What are the challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and female empowerment in water, sanitation and hygiene? As the Commission on the Status of Women begins in New York, Chilufya Chileshe, Regional Advocacy Manager for WaterAid in Southern Africa, reflects.

The Global Economic Prospects report (2018) optimistically forecasts that, for the first time since the financial crisis, the global economy (including developing countries) will this year be operating at or near full capacity. The President of the World Bank notes that global growth is good news for the fight to end poverty and boosting shared prosperity.

He adds, however, that a few things still keep him up at night. One hopes that the status of women and girls, and the continued bleak prospects for most of them, is one of the things that deprives him of sleep. Ensuring all women enjoy equal rights, escape poverty and participate fully in the development of their societies should keep anyone concerned about the dignity of people awake.

WASH poverty, the problems and implications

The gender gap, defined by economic participation and opportunity, political participation and educational attainment, remains very wide. Women, especially in Africa, lack access to basic services, resources and information. As a consequence they are denied access to power and are absent from various levels of societal decision-making and leadership.

Poverty denies people access to basic rights, such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and women and girls feel the effects most.

A common immediate impact of WASH poverty on women is the high burden of diarrhoeal disease. As primary carers of children, women bear this consequence the hardest - but this does not even count as a contribution to the global labour force.

Inability to pay for the often high cost of water means women often walk long distances to unsafe water sources. Inadequate water and hygiene facilities in healthcare facilities, especially maternity wards - a place where women are very vulnerable - renders women and their newborn babies at risk of infection.

WaterAid’s annual State of the World’s Toilets report in 2017 noted that nearly 123 million people globally live with the fear and indignity of relieving themselves in the open, or in unsafe or unhygienic toilets. This situation is most dangerous for girls and women.

Not having toilets in school affects girls most. The absence of somewhere safe and private to change and wash makes managing menstruation difficult for young girls learning to cope with the changes to their bodies and manage pain, and fearing dirtying their uniforms. In countries like Mozambique and Madagascar, where 44% and 36% of the population, respectively, have no alternative but to defecate in the open, girls miss an estimated up to four days of school a month, and many others simply drop out. The importance of WASH in ensuring women’s sexual and reproductive health rights are met cannot be over emphasised.

It is well documented that girls in developing countries, especially in rural areas, spend most of their day doing strenuous chores, which limits the time available for study. This is further compounded when access to water and toilets is absent or poor. In Sub-Saharan Africa women and girls are the primary water carriers in more than 70% of households where water has to be collected. In 2016 UNICEF estimated that girls and women globally spent nearly 200 million hours every day collecting water. They accurately described this as ‘a colossal waste of their valuable time’.

The demand (for action)

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reinforce our vision of women being empowered, enjoying equal opportunity and equality of participation with no threat of violence. This builds on the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1979) which gained prominence through the 1995 Beijing Declaration on women’s empowerment.

At the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women this week, restating of commitments to improve the conditions and uphold the dignity of women is expected.

Continued WASH poverty must be recognised as a contribution to systems that entrench inequality, deny women opportunities and minimise their chances to succeed. It is injustice for women and girls. Access to WASH is a major predicator for the enjoyment of many other rights; lack of them drives vulnerability and prevents or limits women’s progress. It reduces women’s opportunities for education and consequently means of income necessary to be independent and empowered. It determines how much they can achieve in their lives, and, at the most extreme, whether they live or die.

It will take a lot more than commitments to end this injustice. Political will at the highest level of government is vital to translate commitments into better coordination and delivery of work by ministries of water and sanitation, health, education and others.

The urgent need for Africa to accelerate progress towards universal WASH access and women’s empowerment set by the SDGs must be matched by action. Governments, donors, development agencies and other leaders on the continent must fully understand the role of WASH poverty in disempowering women, to ensure adequately responsive solutions.

Key actors such as regulators must take positive measures to ensure the progressive realisation of the rights to water and sanitation. The Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation called on regulators to target specific challenges, including low service coverage to poorer neighbourhoods, informal settlements and rural areas and lack of affordability of services for the poorest.

Significant financial and time investments are necessary to improve access faster. Investment in WASH is investment in development of people, necessary to build human capital. With women being the most affected by inadequate access to water and toilets, investing in these essentials must be at the top of what UN-Women calls ‘gender-responsive investments’ necessary to align action with the principles, values and aspirations of the 2030 Agenda. This will set our countries one step closer to levelling the ground for men and women and ensuring that our economies grow equitably towards the shared prosperity that we can achieve in our lifetime.