In-depth: Running Dry: the humanitarian impact of the global water crisis
GLOBAL: The gender dimensions of water access
“The world’s water resources are our lifeline for survival, and for sustainable development in the twenty-first century.” - United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, 2005
NAIROBI, 20 September 2006 (IRIN) - “The world’s water resources are our lifeline for survival, and for sustainable development in the twenty-first century. […] We need to free women and girls from the daily chore of hauling water, often over great distances. We must involve them in decision-making on water management. We need to make sanitation a priority. This is where progress is lagging most.”
In his statement in March 2005, one week before the start of the International Water for Life Decade, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed the importance of involving women and girls in water-management policy.
One goal of the decade is to halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. It places special emphasis on the participation of women in turning this aspiration into reality.
Global institutions, such as the UN, have long emphasised the essential nature of water and its relation to the alleviation of poverty. It is an absolute necessity – regardless of geography, ethnicity or socio economic status – to sustain human life, as well as a prerequisite to economic activity. Clearly, water is also a nonnegotiable requirement for food production, industry, domestic use and health.
Although water is a basic human need, the manner in which people interact with it and use it is highly dependant upon their gender. Historically, gender has dictated the relationships between men and women and water. It is these behaviours and identities that lead to men and women having very different roles in the use and management of water.
“Gender refers to the roles and responsibilities of women and men and the relationship between them. It does not simply refer to women or men, but to the way behaviours and identities are determined through the process of socialisation,” said the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), an international agency that advocates for women’s equality in global policy.
Public and private domain
Water is the focal point of many women’s lives, especially those who have limited access to it.
“Women are the managers of the water resource at the household and village level, especially in rural areas. They take care of the children and the sick, and they prepare the food. They fetch water and firewood for cooking,” said Carlos Linares, senior water-policy advisor for the UN Development Programme.
Indeed, for many women the provision of water is an overriding priority of daily domestic life.
“All my life, everything has been about water. I want to have a bath - there is no water. I want to wash clothes - no water. I want to cook - no water. Always, everything is water, no water,” said Hua, 47, who lives in Fikayi in northern Nigeria and is a member of the local water, sanitation and hygiene group WASH.
At the household level, women have the primary responsibility for cooking, cleaning, sanitation and health. They take on this role because of local custom and tradition, said Catherine Mwango, executive director of the Kenya Water for Health Organisation (KWAHO), a nongovernmental agency that works to provide sustainable water and sanitation to disadvantaged communities.
“In many cultures, it was always the women and the girl child providing the water because of the cooking. These traditions persist today,” she said.
Photo: Ramita Navai/IRIN
|Pakistan - Women and children have the laborious and sometimes dangerous task of fetching water. The recent earthquake disrupted many water sources and survivors had to trek up to three kilometres to fetch water
A 2003 study by Unicef, the UN children’s agency, of households in 23 countries in sub-Saharan Africa found that 25 percent of the women surveyed spent between 30 minutes and one hour each day collecting and carrying water; 19 percent spent an hour or more. This burden was compounded in drought-prone areas.
“It is difficult for me because I have six children at home” said Kilma Sabaou from Niger. “Before I come to collect water, I have other things to do for my children.”
Water-gathering responsibilities leave many women and girls without the time or energy to engage in income-generating activities or to pursue an education. In fact, many young girls are denied schooling because family water needs take precedence.
“Normally, the girl would have to wake up get the water and so arrive at school late. Or she would be so late she wouldn’t go to school at all. […] Women and girls spend a lot of time going far away to look for water,” Mwango said.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, men are rarely expected to perform such tasks. The subordination of women by men is commonplace in many countries, and most women are not consulted in decision making about how best to use water resources, even though they have a deeper understanding of the issue.
Women’s knowledge of natural resources extends to other areas as well. “Women use vegetation and forests for medicinal plants, food and fuel, as well as for income generation,” said a recent report by WEDO. “But these ecosystems rely on a healthy water supply. As the environment deteriorates, women’s livelihoods become increasingly vulnerable.”
While women’s relationship to water is usually confined to the domestic sphere, men’s primary interest in water in rural settings is within the public domain; that is, agricultural production and irrigation.
This focus determines how resources are allocated. In some communities, there may be infrastructure for irrigation when there is none for drinking water, as men’s work is regarded as part of the productive economy and therefore more worthy of investment.
Women’s access to water is often limited because they do not own property. A 2003 report by the Gender and Water Alliance, entitled ‘Gender Perspectives on Policies in the Water Sector’, described how, in many cases, land ownership is a precondition to water rights.
“Rights to groundwater are usually granted to the owner of the land above it,” said a recent report by Netherlands Development Assistance, part of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Water rights are very closely tied to land and consequently can only be transferred with that land.” The report also found that even if women did hold a legal claim to land, cultural customs in many countries, such as Zimbabwe and Cameroon, prevented women from taking control over how public water was managed in their communities.
Land tenures are allocated to the heads of households, who are generally male. As such, many women have no legal claim to water. This complicates matters when outside agencies try to set up water projects in disadvantaged areas, Mwango explained.
“It is often the men who own the plots. So we have to involve the men, so that they can either donate or agree for the facilities to be put on their plot. Men have to be involved, as it is the men who own the land,” she said.
Photo: Ross Hudson/IRIN
|Women supervising the sale of water from a tank they manage in Kibera, with funding from the Kenya Water for Health Organisation (KWAHO). Although being responsible for the sale and management of the water is empowering, gendered relations still remain. KWAHO has to attain permission from male landowners before it can import a water tank
The increasing tendency towards the privatisation of water and sanitation services by financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has further subordinated women’s access to water, according to the World Development Movement an international organisation which lobbies decision makers to stop policies that entrench poverty and campaigns for gender equality
As is detailed by Jan Selby, senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Sussex and author of several books on resource politics, including water, feels that privatisation of water services moves the decision-making process on water out of the home and into the formal domain, or out of women’s hands and into men’s.
“Modernisation of water supply disempowers women. Where women were previously largely responsible for household supply and management, modernisation results in power shifts to public institutions at state or local levels and business actors - especially agribusiness interests, which are more dominated by men.”
At the World Water Forum in Mexico City in March 2006, officials from the World Bank argued that water could not be properly valued until it was assigned a market price which reflect the costs involved in its management, treatment and supply.
Furthermore, they contended that privatisation is necessary for investment in infrastructure. For example, privatisation of the water sector was a precondition for an IMF loan to eight African countries.
In the developing world, it is often difficult to attribute a price tag to women’s labour. Tradition dictates that the work women do, and the idea of assigning a tangible value to that work goes against custom. That is to say if a person; in this case a woman; has no real status in the hierarchy of their community, how can their work be assigned economic value?
If women’s labour was given economic value, this would intern empower them within the community. However, predominantly this situation this does not occur.
UN conferences, such the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, and targets, such as the Millennium Development Goals, have emphasised how essential women’s empowerment and gender equality are to poverty eradication.
Progress is being made on making gender issues an integral part of water-resource policy and management. In 2003, the Gender and Water Alliance and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) signed an agreement to promote gender mainstreaming into the water-sector activities of the bank’s member countries.
Photo: John Nyaga/IRIN
|Women queue for water in a drought-stricken district of Kenya in 2006. When environments deteriorate, women’s livelihoods become increasingly vulnerable
“More action is needed in the Asia and Pacific region to ensure that water-sector activities are gender responsive,” said Jan Van Heeswijk, director-general of the bank’s regional and sustainable development department. “This collaboration […] will help ADB in our water policy of promoting the integration of gender concerns in policy, plans, programmes and projects.”
Since that time, staff at ADB have received training on gender assessment of water resource management projects. Two studies were also completed -an evaluation of gender mainstreaming in ADB project designs (Gender Scan) and a good practice case study. The outputs of these are informing both partners of lessons learned for future gender mainstreaming.
Nonetheless, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, successful implementation of these and other macro-level commitments depends upon a better developed and more mainstreamed understanding of the different roles men and women play in accessing and using water in human and environmental health, in sanitation and hygiene, in ecosystem stability, and within the public and private spheres.
Experts have agreed that a greater effort needs to be made to balance the roles, responsibilities and know-how of men and women in the management of water resources.
“Water policies and water-management systems should be gender-sensitive. They should reflect the divisions of labour – paid and unpaid – between men and women in all settings related to water,” as was detailed by the report of the International Conference on Freshwater in Germany in 2001.
To achieve the goal of halving the number of people on this planet who lack access to water and sanitation, all stakeholders must acknowledge the role women play in providing water for their families and getting the most use out of every precious drop. If water equals life, women and girls bear a huge responsibility – and in turn deserve to be guaranteed the right to actively participate in shaping water-management policy.