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Gender inequality in access to water: an outstanding issue as we celebrate Women’s Day on March 8

We propose a simple exercise. From the list of tasks that would be part of an analysis of co-responsibility in households, which of them require the use of a generous and safe water supply? Of these tasks, which are carried out by women and which by men in their homes? Which ones would be exhausting if we did not have access to quality water through a tap? In this seemingly basic analysis of co-responsibility at home, we have probably discovered that women would suffer from water scarcity more significantly than men. Indeed, the 2022 European Institute for Gender Equality Index confirms that the equality index score for the domain of time spent on care activities was 69.1, with women devoting more time to household tasks that need the most water.

Once we have established link of these tasks to water use, from the comfort of our cities with adequate water and sanitation or perhaps from others, including rural areas, not so fortunate to have these services, it will not be difficult to empathize with the 26% of the world's population who are not so fortunate: 2 billion people do not have access to clean water and 3.6 billion lack access to an effective sanitation and storage system as of 2023. (Water Action Agenda. UN 2023 Water Conference).

Women have traditionally maintained deep links with water, specifically in the domestic realm

This issue is not new; rather, it is the legacy of traditional roles and responsibilities, in which women have maintained deep connections with water, specifically, as we have mentioned, in the domestic realm. This connection, although it has historical roots, continues to surface as a sharp reflection of persistent inequalities in access to water and sanitation, a reality more evident in developing or impoverished countries.

In these nations, women, as they perform pivotal roles as providers, must face an additional struggle: water scarcity and pollution. The time women dedicate to fetch water not only translates into an extra burden but also limits their opportunities for education and other important activities for personal and community development. Unfortunately, this phenomenon reinforces the persistent cycle of poverty that affects these regions.

Much more than just household work

Women farmers often have to balance irrigation with household tasks, in addition to water management and collection duties

Despite being the most well-known, household work is not the only activity traditionally linked to women in the world's poorest regions. Let's consider agricultural production. The report on gaps, challenges, and opportunities in water and gender in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) (Brechas, desafíos y oportunidades en materia de agua y género en América Latina y el Caribe, CEPAL 2022), reveals that in this region of the world rural population amounts to 121 million people, constituting 20% of the total population. Within this figure, 48% (58 million) are women, performing roles in agricultural, livestock, domestic, and family care activities. Globally, women are responsible for 43% of agricultural production in most developing countries, have limited access to resources, information, and credit, and only own 1% of land worldwide. Land ownership is closely linked to the ability to make decisions about water use for irrigation. However, in LAC, less than 31% of women are landowners, leaving 69% in the hands of men. This phenomenon is observed in countries like Peru, Jamaica, Santa Lucia, and Panama, where female land ownership of agricultural lands does not exceed 11%.

This practice, like many others, finds its roots once again in the deep foundations of the patriarchal system: the possibility of inheriting land is reduced for women, and with it, access to the market and land title, which often falls under the name of their male spouses. Despite some progress, significant differences between countries in this area are attributable to legal provisions and socio-cultural traditions that influence the interpretation and legitimacy of the law. Although some countries allow co-ownership, regulations, registration forms, and patriarchal cultural structures persist, predominantly assigning land ownership to men (FAO, 2010).

Additionally, women farmers often have to balance irrigation with household tasks, in addition to water management and collection duties, one of the unpaid occupations to which women worldwide devote 2.6 times more time than men (Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work. UN Women, 2016). Not to mention the diseases of family members linked to the lack of adequate water and sanitation, which increase the responsibilities of women and girls in their caregiver role. Such imbalance cannot but negatively impact the availability of job opportunities for these women, or the simple right to rest, as they are immersed in relentless and endless tasks.

However, this gender imbalance in the domestic and agricultural domains also extends to water project management, which, overlooking the key role of women, not only excludes a significant portion of the population but also reduces the effectiveness and sustainability of such projects. Limited participation of women in decision making leads to the loss of valuable accumulated knowledge, precisely due to their close dependence on water resources.

Gender inequality is not limited solely to lack of access to water but also evident in the lack of representation of women in decision making 

Therefore, gender inequality is not limited solely to lack of access to water but also evident in the lack of representation of women in decision making and public infrastructure planning. Cultural challenges and the long shadow of traditional gender stereotypes build barriers to active participation of women in water management.

At this critical point in management, where global collaboration and innovative strategies are essential, women emerge as vital actors. An example is found in the initiative "Call to Action to Accelerate Gender Equality in the Water Domain" backed by a global coalition, advocating for active partnerships coordinated by UNESCO's World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP).

Let's talk about girls and hygiene

A recent joint report by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) titled "Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) 2000-2022: Special focus on gender" included the implications of lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation for girls and the risks arising from the unmet hygiene needs of girls and adult women, providing a broader insight into gender inequalities globally.

Globally, the long distances that women and girls have to travel to access safe sanitation systems expose them to greater risks, and they are more likely to feel unsafe when using these facilities outside the home. The report also highlights that more than 500 million people share sanitation facilities, affecting the privacy and safety of women and girls, especially during one of the most frequent and natural, yet often invisible and even chastised, activities: menstrual hygiene. Furthermore, surveys have determined that women and girls feel more vulnerable at night when using a toilet, due to exposure to sexual harassment and other risks.

Likewise, in contexts lacking adequate facilities, open defecation continues to pose one of the greatest risks not only to health and the environment but also to the safety and privacy of girls and women. With some 420 million people practicing open defecation in 2022, the consequences of this practice are often overlooked due to its taboo nature, especially concerning menstrual hygiene.

Open defecation continues to pose one of the greatest risks not only to health and the environment but also to the safety and privacy of girls and women

In this regard, a lack of proper sanitation in schools presents a double challenge in the case of female education since "95% of girls feel uncomfortable at school during their menstrual period", as demonstrated by the study done by UNICEF Peru on the challenges and impacts of menstrual hygiene management for girls in the school context (Retos e Impactos del Manejo de Higiene Menstrual para las Niñas y Adolescentes en el Contexto Escolar), a problem that would undoubtedly be multiplied in the absence of facilities that ensure the safety and privacy of girls in a basic menstrual hygiene context.

The same applies elsewhere across the globe – and any woman could corroborate it – a fact reinforced by examples from other countries such as Suriname, where 17% of women reported not participating in social, school, or work activities during menstruation (Ministry of Social Affairs and Public Housing, 2019). Or in Costa Rica, where 6.7% of women stopped participating in various activities for the same reason, with notable variations between rural (7.6%) and urban (6.4%) areas (UNICEF and MICS Costa Rica, 2018).

These percentages confirm that this is not a health risk (reason enough to address it as a priority agenda) but also a situation that influences the active participation of women in society.

Global recommendations and lines of action for the future

It is necessary to quadruple the investments being made at the moment in basic water and sanitation services

Faced with the growing and undeniable gender and water gap in impoverished countries, recommendations from institutions such as UNICEF and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) converge on the urgent need to adopt proactive strategies and positions that address the implementation of more inclusive and specific approaches.

On one hand, investment in access to safe drinking water and sanitation is positioned as the primary recommendation, from which cross-cutting actions will emerge aimed at ensuring that these investments address the specific needs of women in rural areas, recognizing and addressing the persistent gaps affecting these communities. It is clear that the pace at which we are currently working towards Sustainable Development Goal 6, clean water and sanitation for all, is insufficient, and that "it is necessary to quadruple the investments being made at the moment in basic water and sanitation services," in the words of Josefina Maestu, former Director of the United Nations Office to Support the International Decade for Action, Water for Life 2005-2015.

Likewise, active participation of women in the planning, implementation, and monitoring of WASH programmes is considered one of the most efficient and significant formulas to not only promote gender equity but also contribute to the long-term success and sustainability of such programmes.

On the other hand, the importance of access to irrigation in rural communities cannot be underestimated, and it is imperative to implement projects that promote gender equality in this aspect. These projects must ensure equitable expression of social rights and obligations, recognizing the crucial role of women in these communities.

Another of the most innovative guidelines is the push for the capacity to obtain real and well-structured data. Gonzalo Martínez, an international consultant in water, sanitation, and information systems, affirms that "access to information can be a barrier or not when it comes to complying and advancing towards the Sustainable Development Goals," a fact that can also be extrapolated to the gender gap agenda. The lack of disaggregated data is one of the most complex obstacles since it is not only necessary to collect data but also for them to be disaggregated and structured, and also of enough quality, accessible, timely, and reliable. ECLAC suggests that a national-level public institution take responsibility for monitoring, ensuring equitable participation of men and women in the evaluation of water programmes. Such transparent policy formulation processes, with focused objectives and data, would be an ideal accelerator to combat inequality in sustainable and inclusive water management. These recommendations do not only seek to be a starting point but also to initiate discussions and reform processes in the water sector, thus addressing persistent gender issues.

As its own nature states, the gender perspective contributes to the construction of more equitable and sustainable societies in all spheres, hierarchies, and relationships

In conclusion, aligned with the entire feminist agenda and mission, closing the gender gap in access to water and sanitation is not solely aimed at exclusively improving the quality of life of women, although this purpose is more than enough to immediately activate all proposed solutions. As its own nature states, the gender perspective contributes to the construction of more equitable and sustainable societies in all spheres, hierarchies, and relationships. On this March 8th, International Women's Day, once again it is evident that the fight for equality is cross-cutting and inter-sectoral and that it ensures the integrity of all groups whose rights are violated, such as the most basic and fundamental of all, the Human Right to Water and Sanitation.