I never really thought about the gender aspect of water until we had a learning session about it at work. It seems vague to talk about how water and its issues with gender inequality. Safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is an important aspect of human life and it is the goal six of the Sustainable development goals (SDG). Low income countries have a major challenge of providing this basic resource and this cause a ripple effect in terms of health, education and economic development.
Water has a very important role to play in ensuring that there is gender equality and the involvement of men and women in the management of water related issues has become a global concern for all.
Considering the gender nature of water can be categorised in these three major aspects of water: asset, service and space.
Asset: this aspect involves natural resource, infrastructure and water related occupation.
Space: water can be used as a cultural, physical and political tool of engagement.
Service: this has to do with sanitation, water supply, transportation, irrigation and information technology.
In low income countries, the responsibility of providing safe water, sanitation and hygiene often fall upon women which prevents them from fully participating in education and economic activities. According to a UNESCO 2016 report, about three quarters of households in sub-Saharan Africa fetch water from a source away from their home and 50% to 85% of the time, women are responsible for this task. Reducing the time it takes to fetch water from 30 to 15 minutes increases girls’ school attendance by 12% according to a study in Tanzania. (UNICEF). In South Africa, in poor rural households, women who fetch water and fuel wood spend 25% less time in paid employment. (UNESCO, 2012)
The safety and dignity of women is also a question that needs to be addressed as a result of having to practice open defecation and also the accessibility of water during menstruation. About 44 million women have sanitation-related hookworm infections that pose a considerable health burden in developing societies. (UNICEF)
The gender nature of water is further fuelled by cultural practices such as taboos that are associated with bodily wastes of all kinds especially menstruation. Although the burden of water supply falls on women and children in a society, the management, control and decision making of water as an asset are often given to the men.
It is important to however note that not all women are disadvantaged as well as not all men are privileged (males are twice as likely to drown than females according to the WHO). In the issues of water and inequality, race, class, caste ethnicity, sexual orientation, location and age all come to play in the gendered nature of water and it therefore behoves on us not to stereotype the issues of gender inequality to female alone.
- The non-economic values of water are crucial in policy formulation and practices as belief systems and culture need to be taken into account for there to be meaningful change.
- More women should be encouraged to take on roles and occupation that are male dominated. For example, more women should aspire to be WASH experts, sailors, etc.
- At the local level, gender-sensitive approaches are helping to improve sustainability, suitability and reach of water and sanitation services by both focusing on and involving women in the facilities’ design, implementation and management. (UN)
In tacking the gender problems of water, we need to ask the right questions of
- Who: because both male and female are disadvantaged (although in rural communities, a greater percentage of women are disadvantaged).
- How: in what areas and where does the exclusion take place?
- Why: are there historical, cultural, institutional or other reasons for being disadvantaged?
- How: how can we move forward towards greater gender equality?
Oyemade Hannah writes from Abuja, Nigeria. You can contact her via: firstname.lastname@example.org