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Women and water: when everything remains to be done or an elephant in the room

  • Women and water: when everything remains to be done or an elephant in the room

About the blog

Gonzalo Delacámara
Global economist. Director, Centre for Water & Climate Adaptation, IE University. International consultant to the UN, WBG, OECD, and European Commission.
Schneider Electric

The echoes of the International Women's Day (March 8th), celebrated all over the world last Friday in defence of the end of the severe anomaly around gender inequality, resonate in an intense way. World Water Day is quickly approaching (March 22nd). Whilst some may think that everything that happened during the previous week is already past, the truth is that I think it is worth remembering that (almost) everything remains to be done. "What’s past is prologue," said William Shakespeare in The Tempest (Act 2, Scene I, 1611). Even more, we should add, when in fact the only thing that is passed in strict sense is a series of massive demonstrations, rather than the validity of the claims, which does not expire.

In less developed countries, where deficiencies in the provision of drinking water and sanitation services concentrate, according to data from the Join Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation by WHO and UNICEF, the greatest difficulties in relative terms are for women and, in an associated way, for children. The manifestation of inequality is multifactorial.

Despite being less than 5% of agricultural holders in North Africa or East Asia, women represent 43% of the agricultural workforce in the world’s less developed countries. In 80% of households with problems of improved access to drinking water, women are responsible for carrying water. In countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique or Zambia, carrying water consumes more than 30 minutes a day for a quarter of the population. This drastically limits the ability of women to dedicate themselves to the generation of income, to their personal development, to both formal and informal education, and to the care of children or elderly population that should be a shared responsibility of men and women.

The need to carry water is one of the main causes of school dropout among girls, something that conditions their lives even when they have access to drinking water and sanitation at some point. When they enter puberty and, along with the difficulties of any adolescent in the more developed world, they sometimes leave school as well, had they not done so before, lacking bathrooms with a minimum of privacy, something that poses problems for them on a daily basis but especially during menstruation. Some leave school forever; others fail to attend five days a month on average. In countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal or Nigeria certain traditions around the menstrual cycle define a cultural stigma that would not only be weakened with education but with a determined effort to improve sanitation facilities and services.

The shortcomings in these services also increase the risk of certain higher morbidity, including diarrheal diseases, among those infected with HIV or who have already developed AIDS. In sub-Saharan Africa, women account for 60% of people infected with HIV.

Without access to improved sanitation services, on the other hand, many women and girls remain hidden during the day - they are "prisoners of daylight", suffering intense pain while waiting to do their physiological needs after sunset. In those moments, the risk of aggressions of all kinds increases, including sexual attacks. The suburbs of the main cities of Kenya or India show a high correlation between the absence of appropriate sanitation structures, the rates of open defecation and the frequency of rape.

None of these realities is noticeable in a developed country like Spain. It would be almost impossible to depict an equivalent portrait. However, I would like to emphasize an essentially fallacious debate that frequently emerges: that of so-called "water poverty". This would not be particularly harmful in itself if it were not because, in reality, it hides the real challenge, which has little or nothing to do with the level of tariffs but with the existence of wide areas of poverty and social exclusion, as well as with growing inequality in the distribution of income.

In 1814, the Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov wrote The Inquisitive Man. It showed a man who, in a museum, was able to observe all details and ignore an elephant. Dostoevsky made proverbial the phrase "an elephant in the room". Our room is full of them indeed. In terms of gender inequality, public reflection has been achieved on very relevant issues (gender violence, wage gap, family and work reconciliation, etc.), but there is a certain deficit with respect to an issue that many men and some women elude: the relationship between them in the private sphere, at the origin of many of the above-mentioned ones. Something similar happens with the misunderstanding about "water poverty": the level of the tariff is discussed, but it is obvious that the social challenge is to contribute to reducing the magnitude and the risk of poverty and social exclusion overall.

The water community seems to be comfortable debating about affordability or human rights to water and sanitation but do we not have the responsibility to draw attention to challenges that are generated and unveiled outside the urban water cycle, yet affecting the delivery of water services?

It cannot be ignored that the participation of women in the labour market in Spain is 52.2% compared to 63.8% of men. Women not only have higher rates of unemployment and part-time occupation than men, but their evolution is divergent, that is, it worsens more rapidly for women.

26.6% of the population living in Spain (2017) is at risk of poverty and / or social exclusion, with 2.3 million people being severely impacted. Does the elephant seem small? It represents over ten million people. Single-parent families are the most likely to fall into poverty, facing double the risk of households comprised of two adults with children. This especially applies to women because they head more than 83% of these households (80% in the European Union, on average). In Spain, more than half of single-parent families are at risk of poverty.

As it is well known, women's problems tend to be associated with problems with children. Almost one in three children under the age of 16 is at risk of poverty or social exclusion. In addition, the economic crisis has consolidated a new fact: not every job protects from poverty, because contractual conditions are also relevant. That leads to women getting up every morning to work for their poverty and that of their family.

A severe vulnerability indicator is the so-called severe material deprivation rate. It is considered that a person is in that extreme situation when s/he cannot afford four or more items of consumption of the total of nine that are considered basic in the European Union: meat, chicken or fish meal at least every two days; a home with the right temperature; ability to face unforeseen expenses; delays in the payment of expenses related to the main dwelling in the last 12 months; inability to go on vacation at least one week a year; absence of telephone, TV set, washing machine and automobile. In the case of Spain, there are hardly any people who do not have a telephone, television or washing machine, so the indicator is much more stringent since it actually accounts for those who cannot afford four of a total of six expenditure concepts.

Despite the recent decline in this indicator, it remains 40% higher than levels registered in 2008. Currently, one of every 15 children, and one out of every eight people living in single-parent families, suffer severe material deprivation.

We should not remain oblivious to what happens outside the water sector, neither from a pragmatic point of view (which demands a good framing of problems) nor from our ethical commitment to gender equality, one of the great challenges of our time.

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