How Water Contributes to Gender Inequality

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

Water.Org estimates that about 844 million people around the world do not have access to safe water, that’s 1 in 9 people. And around 2.3 billion people, or 1/3 of the world’s population live without access to safe sanitation and toilets. In many countries, no access to clean water and adequate sanitation disproportionately affects women and girls more than men and boys. This has a downstream effect on women, impacting health, contribution to the labour force and school attendance, trapping them into a cycle of poverty. Australian Water Association (AWA) & International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that only about 15% women are employed in the formal water management and sanitation sectors globally. Lack of women’s representation in these sectors inhibits their ability to participate in the decision-making process which affects them more adversely.

UN Water states that globally, 8 out of 10 households have women or girls responsible for collecting water off-premise. Water.Org, reports that on average, women are collectively spending an estimated 200 million hours a day collecting water. Unicef reported that in Sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 3.36 million children and 13.54 million women were responsible for water collection in their household, with collection times greater than 30 minutes. This is essentially time taken away from education and participation in the labour force. Therefore, women cannot adequately earn a living, resulting in a loss of income to both the household and the national labour economy. According to Water.Org, an estimated $260 billion is lost globally each year due to lack of clean water and basic sanitation for women.

In addition to lack of clean water, women and girls also face the challenge of inadequate sanitation and toilet facilities. According to, women and girls living without on-premise toilets spend 97 billion hours each year looking for an appropriate place to go and are forced to practice open defecation. This put women and girls at risk for diseases and infections. Lack of toilet facilities for managing menstruation also forces girls out of school and women out of the workforce, holding them back from earning a living. reported that in Ethiopia, over 50% of girls missed between one and four days of school a month due to menstruation. Moreover, water collection is often located in remote and unsafe areas, therefore, women and girls are subjected to a high risk of violence (sexual assault, harassment, rape). UN Women states that the global cost of violence towards women is about $1.3 trillion, which is 2% of the global GDP. According to Water.Org for every $1 invested in making water and sanitation more accessible, $4 is returned back to the global economy (due to lower healthcare costs, fewer premature deaths, increased productivity and higher GDP).

Countries need to target higher gender development by reducing inequalities and closing the existing gender gaps. They should implement gender responsive budgeting and programs or policies that invest in infrastructural facilities like improved access to water and sanitation for both men and women equally. It is also critical for countries to collect gender disaggregated data for better decision making. More importantly, they must allow and encourage women to participate in decision-making roles and align national efforts with global goals both SDG 5 and SDG 6. Some countries are already taking steps towards addressing the gaps:

- Tanzania and Morocco saw an increase of 12% and 20% respectively, in girls’ school attendance rates due to a reduction in water collection time when clean water facilities were provided closer to households.

- India introduced a self-saving & credit program for women which allowed them to invest their loans in water supply facilities. In Alwar, India girls’ school attendance increased by 1/3 when school sanitation was improved. In 2014 India launched the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ (Clean India Mission) programme, building 85 million toilets across rural areas. The programme aims to put an end to open defecation by 2019 by providing better sanitation and waste management facilities. It also includes building separate toilets for girls in schools and teaching menstrual hygiene.

- Pakistan allowed women in Hoto village to participate in water management decisions which resulted in improved and cost effective facilities for girls in schools.

- Bangladesh saw an increase of 11% in girls’ school attendance rates after implementing a school sanitation programme.

Click below to explore the interactive visualisation and learn more about how water contributes to gender inequality.

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