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A woman pumps up water from a tubewell in West Bengal despite the red cross that signifies that there is an unacceptable level of arsenic in the water.— Photo by The Third Pole
A woman pumps up water from a tubewell in West Bengal despite the red cross that signifies that there is an unacceptable level of arsenic in the water.— Photo by The Third Pole

They carry water home, store it, keep it as clean as possible. Yet women are kept out of major decisions around water supply.

During this year’s World Water Week in Stockholm, experts focused on an age-old problem: how to recognise and value the central role women play in solving water-related issues.

Tracing the recent history of this attempt, Ankur Gupta of the Global Water Programme told thethirdpole.net: “You can look back at the Dublin 1992 principles that state clearly [the need for] the involvement of women in water management. There is a lot of evidence coming up pointing in the direction that exclusion of women is harmful, especially in Wash (water, sanitation and hygiene).”

Particularly in South Asia, Gupta commented, it is necessary to involve women in decision-making about water supply, starting at the household level. “To fall back on clichés, this helps women in terms of self-esteem and confidence; better water management gives them more free time to engage in other activities. Most importantly, Wash and water management activities need to be monetised and recognised. But for that, the required political will is missing.”

Gupta suggested specific remedies: providing scholarships for women to study water-related subjects, quotas for women to take up roles on boards and committees, and the provision of menstrual hygiene management facilities.

Wherever women have been empowered to decide on issues of water, sanitation and hygiene, the results have been excellent. This is how Bangladesh has recently succeeded in controlling open defecation, said Akramul Islam, director of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee‘s (Brac) Wash programme.

“Women in rural areas are vulnerable when it comes to the use of latrines,” said Islam. “Brac’s participatory rural appraisal started including both men and women. This helped us know for sure where new latrines are needed and what their design should be [according to gender-specific needs], because it is often unsafe for women to walk far to use the toilet.”

In this programme, Brac gives leadership training to one male and one female from each community.

“Slowly, women have started voicing their opinions and that is very encouraging,” said Islam.

Who carries water home

Brac has another big first: working on making water carrying a shared responsibility of men and women. Women carrying water is a practice so ingrained in South Asia that it is almost a taboo to think otherwise. But Brac is doing just that.

“We are motivating men to collect water so that it is no longer seen just as a woman’s responsibility,” Islam told thethirdpole.net. “To counsel the communities [especially the men], we have brought the village Imams on board. We counsel them and give them small booklets with information they can disseminate through Khutbas (sermons).”

And attitudes are slowly changing, Islam said.

“Urban women are some of the greatest water wasters,” said Muhammad Ashraf, chairman, Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources. “They should be involved in the Wash sector and water conservation at the domestic level.”

If women are included in decisions pertaining to Wash, they and their children would be the first to benefit from it, Ashraf pointed out.

The level of education and awareness among women has a direct impact on Wash, said Pervaiz Amir, director of the Pakistan Water Partnership.

“Women in Kashmir’s rural areas are [relatively] educated; they give high priority to investment in toilets. On the other hand, the situation in Tharparkar and Cholistan is bad due to a lack of education. Engaging women in public services and increasing their job opportunities can have a direct impact on sanitation and hygiene services.”

Pointing to the link between sanitation and nutrition, Amir also emphasised the need to have women “closely tied to all household-related water decisions. They collect water and regulate the level of usage. When women are excluded, the results are poor, leading to social disharmony and even conflict”.

Positively, there is an overall increase in attention to gender gaps in many spheres, said Maitreyi B. Das, global lead for social inclusion at the World Bank.

“This year, World Water Week in Stockholm has made a concerted effort to have more sessions on gender issues. I think there is a greater realisation that SDG6 will not be met unless we focus on men and women separately and together,” said Das referring to the United Nations' sustainable development goal to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030.

After talking about the particular need for inclusion of women in water management in South Asia, Das added: “As our recent report notes, overall gender inequalities are mirrored in water related domains. We will neither achieve our water-related goals nor our goals for gender equality unless we address gender in everything we do, in every sector.”

This article was originally published on The Third Pole and has been reproduced with permission.