The gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and girls

9 min read
Melody and her classmates wash their hands with soap at the sinks in the toilet block at their school in Kazungula District, Zambia.
Image: WaterAid/Chileshe Chanda

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To better understand the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on different gender and populations groups, we have been collaborating with the University of Leeds and FEMNET. Desideria Benini from the University discusses her research into how the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector includes gender in its response to emergencies, and why this matters.

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, activists and agencies working on gender and development issues have been joining forces to advocate that gender equality and women’s rights be put at the heart of the global emergency response. The WASH sector, whose contribution is critical, must not be an exception if universal WASH access is to be guaranteed.

Seeing the world through a feminist intersectional lens means recognising the existence of overlapping systems of discrimination based on multiple markers of social identity, such as gender, race, class or disability. In times of crisis – from wars to natural disasters, from nuclear to health emergencies – these structural inequalities intersect with the harms caused by the emergency to produce disproportionate impacts on women and girls (PDF).

Why does gender matter in WASH?

A feminist and intersectional lens enables us to see that WASH access is highly influenced by social inequalities. For example:

  • Women and girls have to satisfy additional requirements for privacy when using WASH facilities, because of patriarchal norms of female modesty and cultural or religious taboos around menstruation (PDF).
  • The gendered division of labour determines women’s role as primary water purveyors and their responsibility for all water-related tasks, limiting their access to education, income-generation or leisure time. Where water is paid for, pricing can disproportionately affect women and girls by increasing their domestic workload because it becomes increasingly hard to find water from different and cheaper sources.
  • Decision making within families and communities is usually seen as the role of males, leaving others unable to advocate their WASH needs and priorities. Yet, even when marginalised people are formally involved in decision making, their agency can be limited by informal structures of norms and traditions, such as the idea that being talkative in public meetings could ruin a married woman’s reputation.

Without recognising and addressing structural forms of discrimination, WASH provision risks failing to benefit people equally while perpetuating injustices. WaterAid has committed to tackling inequalities in all aspects of WASH, and during the COVID-19 pandemic this is no different. We therefore designed this research to understand the gendered impact of COVID-19 on WASH access across different regions. We distributed an online survey within 14 countries in Africa and South Asia, targeting practitioners working for community, national and international development organisations. Let’s see what we discovered.

Two women wearing masks in a village in Odisha, India, fixing a water pump.
As part of our COVID-19 response, with our partner JEETA we helped equip tribal women in Debagarh, Odisha, India, with skills to repair and maintain drinking water sources.
Image: WaterAid

Evidence from the COVID-19 crisis: a gender analysis

The pandemic has exacerbated existing gendered barriers

While COVID-19 has increased the demand for water and hygiene materials to enable preventive measures, it has also compounded people’s difficulties in meeting WASH needs. 65% of our 76 respondents stated that the water people were able to access is not enough to cover all daily uses during the emergency. However, applying a feminist lens to data analysis enables us to recognise that this increasing difficulty in accessing WASH is gendered. In other words, the pandemic has exacerbated existing gendered barriers to WASH access that create unique WASH and menstrual hygiene management (MHM) challenges for women and girls every day.


Economic hardship emerged as the most negative effect of the pandemic within surveyed communities. According to 78% of respondents, people who already paid for water still have to pay during the emergency, while 61% claimed the costs of water and soap have even increased, making it extremely hard to buy what is necessary to meet the enhanced WASH needs created by the pandemic.

Moreover, 73% of respondents stated women and girls cannot afford to manage their periods during the pandemic. As multiple studies show, lack of clean water and hygiene supplies disproportionately affects women’s, girls’ and children’s health at all times, contributing to their gendered vulnerability. 41% of respondents reported that women also struggle to meet their menstrual health needs, with house confinement compromising their privacy.

Inaccessibility and inadequacy of WASH facilities

51% of respondents answered ‘no’ when asked if communal WASH facilities are available, easily accessible and secure for everyone during the crisis, criticising especially their design for not being gender- or disability- friendly. Two main barriers, created by the pandemic, to use of public facilities emerged: restricted access due to quarantine measures, and fear of contagion. Most importantly, respondents expressed concerns over WASH infrastructure not only in public spaces but also in healthcare and quarantine facilities, pointing out the lack of clean water and handwashing stations, and the absence of facilities adapted for MHM and people with mobility problems (see Tables 1.1 and 1.2 below). For a screen reader-friendly version of all tables and figures in this blog, download the PDF here.

A chart showing respondents' concerns over WASH infrastructure in healthcare facilities. Download the PDF to read the details. media file was renamed.
Table 1.1 A chart showing respondents' concerns over WASH infrastructure in healthcare facilities.
A chart showing respondents' concerns over WASH infrastructure in quarantine facilities. Download the PDF to read the details.
Table 1.2 A chart showing respondents' concerns over WASH infrastructure in quarantine facilities.

Power inequalities

According to those surveyed, the balance of power within households and communities is overwhelmingly male-dominated, and this has not changed during COVID-19. 65% of respondents stated that men have more decision-making power within households, while just 3% claimed women do. A similar proportion of respondents reported that husbands control financial resources and assets. As a result, women might have less capacity to make decisions about COVID-19 preventive measures, thereby limiting families’ resilience – various studies report that when women have a say on major household purchases the level of family hygiene and sanitation improves.

At community level, from the responses gathered and summarised in Table 2, there seems to be a power hierarchy in decision making on WASH in which women are present but not influential, while people living with disabilities, especially women, are completely excluded. Most respondents identified physical inability and social norms as the main barriers to women’s and people with disabilities’ capacities to influence decisions. For example, multiple participants stated that women are not supposed to speak or challenge the opinions of men. Others reported that these groups are usually ignored or not taken seriously because they are considered less able, or even, as one respondent put it, "people of little help".

A chart showing the divisions of community decision making on WASH.
Table 2: A chart showing the divisions of community decision making on WASH.

Increasingly unequal gendered division of labour

Nearly all those surveyed reported that women do the lion’s share of unpaid domestic work within families, with very little help from their husbands, as shown in Table 3. This was consistent across all countries. According to respondents, while the time allocated to domestic activities has significantly increased because of the pandemic, especially in families’ hygiene and sanitation practices, the distribution of gender responsibilities has not changed – gender stereotypes persist, maintaining unpaid domestic labour as a female role. Consequently, this additional domestic burden is falling entirely on women and girls, who are now more involved in household activities because schools have closed. As shown in the Ebola outbreak, this could pose a huge risk to girls’ education.

A chart showing the divisions of labour in unpaid domestic work.
Table 3: A chart showing the divisions of labour in unpaid domestic work.

The evidence overall

This study has shown that women, especially those with disabilities, are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on WASH access, because of structural gender inequalities. This evidence is only the latest in countless COVID-19 gender analyses published here (PDF) and elsewhere that urge gender-responsive WASH programming in emergency contexts. Although progress has been made recently towards the adoption of gender-sensitive approaches, studies indicate that there is still a lack of widespread and sustained commitment to gender equality in emergency action. In particular, the mainstream water and sanitation sector tends to see WASH provision as a mere technical issue, while addressing social inequalities is viewed as a non-essential – if not an additional burden.

Women queue to collect water, maintaining social distance, in Bangladesh.
Women queue to collect water, maintaining social distance, in Bangladesh.
Image: WaterAid

WASH sector response and policy analysis

Against this backdrop, another fundamental goal of this research was to identify and examine possible gender gaps in the WASH emergency response for COVID-19. Not only have we used our study to investigate the integration of gender into COVID-19 WASH interventions within surveyed communities, but we also analysed five flagship documents1 published by leading institutions, to reflect on the integration of gender at international policy level.

This analysis showed that only lip service was paid to the importance of mainstreaming gender into COVID-19 WASH strategies. Except for a few standalone documents explicitly on this subject within COVID-19 resources online, gender and inclusion were not successfully factored into the five texts studied:

  • Only one sample document mentions 'gender', which is cited as one of the "Mainstreaming and overarching approaches" guiding the WASH response in COVID-19 contexts. Yet the text neither expands on the matter nor gives any specific guidance; it simply provides a link to an external document. Clearly, this contradicts the vision of gender mainstreaming as a strategy to integrate gender at every step of policy formulation.
  • All documents make uncritical use of the terms 'household', 'community' and 'water users' as if families were egalitarian units and there were no differences between community members in access to WASH.
  • The words 'women and girls' appear only once, concerning the distribution of MHM items. This might indicate that, where women’s interests are considered, they have been reduced to their differing practical and biological needs, overlooking structural problems such as lack of voice, power or independence.

Evidence from our survey suggests that the same simplistic approach to gender seen in these policies was adopted on the ground. It seems WASH programming in surveyed communities aimed to provide gender-sensitive facilities and hygiene kits but ignored fundamental elements of equity and empowerment, such as women’s leadership and inclusive decision-making.

According to those surveyed, while community leaders and local authorities have been actively involved in WASH interventions, local women’s rights groups have been consulted only occasionally and, even worse, disability rights groups have been excluded. Respondents reported that in community participation members of their community were mainly involved in hygiene promotion activities but never included in the consultation process. This indicates that gender and inclusion is viewed as exclusively the responsibility of hygiene and communication teams, not as a cross-cutting issue.

Looking to the future

This research shows the importance of integrating gender into WASH emergency programming, while highlighting a lack of commitment to advancing gender equality and women’s rights in crises. Fundamentally, this requires a change in mindset.

Mainstreaming gender in WASH goes beyond hygiene promotion activities and the distribution of MHM items; it includes a political commitment to tackle structural inequalities, especially when operating in emergency situations. Achieving this will not only save more lives regardless of social differences, but also address the root causes of people’s vulnerability, ensuring equitable, universal and sustainable access to WASH.

This research feeds into the work WaterAid East Africa is leading in collaboration with the pan-African womens' network FEMNET to analyse the impacts on and experiences and recommendations of women in the region. If you want to know more about the detailed gender analysis of COVID-19 and WASH in East Africa, don't miss our next publication. 

Desideria Benini is a recent graduate from the University of Leeds with a Masters in Global Development.

1 These were:

  • Global WASH cluster: COVID-19 Response Guidance Note (GWC, 2020a).
  • Global WASH cluster: COVID-19 Response Guidance Note #02 (GWC, 2020b).
  • Water, sanitation, hygiene, and waste management for the COVID-19 virus (23 April 2020) (WHO and UNICEF, 2020).
  • UNHCR Technical WASH Guidance for COVID-19 Preparedness and Response (UNHCR, 2020).
  • USAID Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH): Strategic Approach to COVID-19 Response (USAID Water Leadership Council, 2020)

Top image: Melody, 13, and other female pupils washing their hands with soap at the sinks in the toilet block of their school in Kazungula District, Zambia. October 2020. Soaps and hand sanitisers were distributed in schools and healthcare facilities as part of Unilever's gifts in kind for the COVID-19 response, to help people follow hygiene guidance during the pandemic.