The Role of Water in Catalyzing Gender Equity

Lack of access to sanitation and hygiene facilities and safe drinking water disproportionately impacts women. The United Nations highlights three main challenges that women face in this space.

First, women and girls are usually the ones responsible for gathering water for their families and communities. The burden of collecting water falls to women in 80 percent of households that lack direct access to a water source. When looked at collectively, women spend 200 million hours a day gathering water globally. First, this time-consuming activity often prevents them from obtaining an education or gaining employment. There are also physical consequences for women who spend several hours a day collecting water, including musculoskeletal damage.

Second, women and girls are more vulnerable to gender-based violence while using latrines without locks, open toilets, or while collecting water.

Third, women and girls have specific hygiene needs during menstruation, pregnancy, and birth. For example, there are one million deaths per year due to unsanitary conditions during birth. Further exacerbating these challenges are the discriminatory laws surrounding ownership and land rights which also impact women and girls' ability to access water. Affordability of public latrines, combined with lower levels of income for women, also negatively impacts women. Often, men’s access to public latrines is free while women must pay, or latrines for men are much cheaper to access.

Water Catalyzes Women’s Agency

Addressing challenges that women and girls face in access to water, sanitation, and hygiene can play an important catalytic role in increasing their economic and political engagement, leading to an improvement in their agency. When communities as a whole have greater access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services, women have to spend significantly less time gathering water for their families. Not only does this lead to a reduction in violence against women both in their homes and during the process of collecting water, but it also frees up time for women to engage in activities outside of the household. Girls have the time to attend school and women can use the time to partake in entrepreneurial activities. In fact, in communities that were recipients of water access programs, 90 percent of the 47 percent of women who were able to use the time they gained to engage in entrepreneurial activities saw an increase in income.

The G7 and foreign aid community has limited resources to address the entirety of development concerns around the world. Given this limited capacity and the connectivity between the impact of water on women and individual and country-wide economic growth, addressing these issues could have an impact that goes beyond access to water. Addressing water issues can impact overall gender inequality, with additional health, education, governance, and peace benefits.


There are challenges, however, to increasing donor investments in the nexus between water and gender issues. The first is that there is a lack of data on water accessibility that is disaggregated by gender which makes it extremely difficult for donors to understand the scope of the problems that need to be addressed. Women also face barriers when it comes to agency over decisionmaking processes, access to resources, and support through regulatory processes.

Lack of Disaggregated Data Collection

Lack of disaggregated data presents a significant barrier in steering programming to address women’s issues in the water space. Currently, only 26 percent of the data needed to monitor progress towards gender equity-related SDG goals is available. Progress measured towards both the SDG goals and success of WASH programs is often not disaggregated by gender, making it impossible to monitor whether development programming is reaching women in need. The data collected also often does not account for differences that women face depending on their geographic location or economic status. Women living in rural areas face different issues than those in urban ones. In rural areas, for example, water sources are often much further away, requiring women to walk longer distances, while women in urban areas have to stand in hours-long lines. Beyond rural and urban divides, there are other intersectional issues that impact the needs of women, including age, disability, marital status, pregnancy, and indigenous status. In order to develop inclusive WASH programming, these factors should be taken into account to address the needs of all women. Finally, cultural issues also impact women’s access to water in varying degrees. Studies that collect data on women’s access to water often miss cultural nuances or do not take cultural contexts into account. Understanding how culture can impact women’s access is an important part of shifting traditional gender norms that put domestic responsibilities primarily on women.

Women’s Agency

In many communities where women bear the responsibility for collecting water and face difficulties accessing WASH facilities, cultural stereotypes and norms persist that place women in more domestic roles and prevent them from partaking in important decisionmaking processes. Currently, women make up only 18 percent of the water and sanitation workforce and 12 percent of environmental sector ministers. Women have the potential to play an integral role in ensuring equitable access to water. They should not only be seen as victims, but as potential catalysts for change when given proper agency. Women should play a more integral role in the decisionmaking process not only on issues surrounding their own access to water, but water management in general. This will give them the agency to take on leadership positions within their communities, catalyzing other gender equality advancements while simultaneously ensuring equity in water access. In many cases, local water boards provide an opportunity for women to participate in democratic activities for the first time, which facilitates later political engagement. However, women’s agency does not exist in a vacuum and it would be a mistake to address these challenges exclusively in a women-centric way. They exist in part as a result of the control that men have over the regulatory environment and access to resources.

Regulatory Environment and Access to Resources

A significant barrier to women gaining access to water is ownership of resources, especially for their businesses. Land access and property rights are critical to livelihoods in rural areas. However, across the world, women have significantly less ownership over land rights. A study conducted in seven African countries found that local laws favor male ownership of natural resources, which prevent women from gaining access to water, especially for economic purposes. Most governments, both on a local and national level, do not have any laws that explicitly address this issue. In fact, as of 2017, 102 countries still had laws in place that prevent women from having the same land ownership rights as men. These laws also prevent women’s abilities to serve on water management commissions which often have ownership requirements. Without the necessary input from women, it is less likely that there will be change to ownership laws.


Donors, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), can play an important role in this space by providing technical assistance to governments and communities to develop a more inclusive regulatory environment that supports women’s access to resources and participation in important decisionmaking processes. The international donor community and NGOs can take several steps in both identifying the main challenges for women in accessing water, empowering women to play a larger role in decisionmaking processes, and pushing for regulatory reforms.

  1. Collect data disaggregated by gender to identify gaps and areas where women can step in to take ownership over both decisionmaking processes and resources. As part of this, there needs to be a development of tangible gender indicators that reflect the situation men and women face separately in regard to access to WASH resources and services. These tools are essential for conducting monitoring and evaluation of public programs and legislation to assess their impact on women. Efforts should also include an extensive review of countries' policies to account for gender awareness, which will help mainstream gender perspectives in water, resources, and environment ministries, community water boards, and other legislative and regulatory bodies. Donor countries should provide technical assistance to local and national actors in order to direct the data collection process.

  2. Implement community awareness campaigns to address cultural norms surrounding women in the household. These campaigns should focus on the economic benefits to households and communities of empowering women. Discriminatory laws that prevail in some countries are sustained by cultural norms and stereotypes about women’s place in society. Changing the current paradigm requires a change of mentality and culture toward a more inclusive mindset, which requires education and continuous action. Investments in education, raising awareness, and strengthening of women’s representation in society might help change these stereotypes over time.

  3. Provide training and education programs for women to gain the necessary technical and managerial skills to be prepared to be involved in decisionmaking bodies and manage water-related projects. To ensure the full participation of women in water resource management (WRM), governments and other institutions should provide training and technical workshops to equip women with the necessary skill set to understand how water infrastructure, services, and laws work. These skills trainings could also include literacy programs, management courses, and financial education. These types of trainings can enable women to step into more leadership positions and give them ownership of the decisionmaking process.

  4. Push for regulatory reforms that include gender equity on various legislative bodies regulating WASH services and more inclusive property ownership laws. This process should include consulting with various women’s organizations in the design of policies and legislation to close existing gaps in water resource and management policies, given their essential role in this field. It could also include earmarking funding of a country’s budget towards gender mainstreaming in WRM to plan and assess how public funds (across all sectors) contribute to gender equality.

  5. Implement these reforms as part of SDG 5 and SDG 6. SDG 6 is “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” and target 5.a calls for governments to “undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws” and target 5.c, asks governments to “adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.” Addressing women’s access to clean water and sanitation as part of greater SDG efforts will give the international community access to SDG-related resources and make it a priority among the donor community. Additionally, SDG 6 can only be accomplished if the unique challenges women face are taken into account.

Conor M. Savoy is a senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Janina Staguhn is a research associate for the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Conor M. Savoy

Conor M. Savoy

Former Senior Fellow, Project on Prosperity and Development
Janina Staguhn

Janina Staguhn

Former Associate Fellow, Project on Prosperity and Development