March 18, 2019 | By Razaq Fatai, Research Assistant, Global Policy

Guest Commentary - Gender Equality & Clean Water Access: A Two-Way Street

Editor's Note: As part of our new blog series, Uncharted Waters, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is inviting a diverse group of experts to explore topics related to water, nutrition, and agriculture in advance of  the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium.  Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 20 and 21.

By Razaq Fatai

Arguably, nothing is more important than water; it affects every aspect of our lives. From cooking to maintaining personal hygiene, we need clean water to live a decent life. Yet, access to clean water remains one of the biggest challenges in many countries, particularly in Africa and Asia. Globally, 844 million people are struggling to access water, almost 200 million higher than the level in 2015. This implies that the number of people that are able to collect water within a 30-minute round trip to their home is increasing, reflecting a huge setback towards achieving SDG 6, which focuses on ensuring universal access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030. Also, nearly 1,000 children under the age of 5 die each day due to diarrheal illness directly linked to dirty water, poor hygiene and inadequate toilets.

Water scarcity has severe implications for women and girls, as they often bear the burden of providing water for their households, especially in rural areas. Because women in developing countries are primarily seen as housewives and mothers (even when they often contribute to family income through farming, small businesses, and other work), they shoulder the bulk of households’ unpaid care work. This includes collecting water for drinking, cooking and sanitation. According to the World Health Organization, women and girls are responsible for water collection in 8 out of 10 households without running water on their premises. In sub Saharan Africa, women spend roughly 40 billion hours a year collecting water. And if a woman were to collect the UN-recommended 50 liters of water per person for her family of four, she would spend two and a half months a year getting water from a source 30 minutes away.

Inadequate access to clean water exacerbates gender inequality, as it reduces women and girls’ ability to complete their education, learn valuable skills, and pursue economic opportunities. As a result, it weighs heavily on economic growth worldwide.

  • Because women and girls spend a significant amount of their time traveling to get water, they have less time to devote to income-generating work. Globally, women’s participation in the labor force is nearly 30 percentage points lower than for men, resulting in a significant loss in economic output, and wealth. Roughly $160 trillion of human capital wealth is lost globally due to women’s inability to partake effectively in the workforce. Even when women are able to secure a source of livelihood, they are less productive than men. For instance, women are responsible for nearly half of agricultural workforce in low and middle-income countries, but are on average 20–30 percent less productive than their male counterparts, hindering progress on global food security and nutrition.
  • With so much time spent on water collection, many girls often miss school, and are not able to complete their education. In addition, they are at risk of violence as they seek to meet their household water needs. One in every 3 girls does not finish primary school in sub-Saharan Africa compared to almost 1 in every 4 boys. Today, 130 million girls between the age of 6 and 17 are out of school, half of which are in sub-Saharan Africa. Many girls also face a higher risk of getting raped or kidnapped when they trek long distances to get water.
  • Women and girls are at risk of developing health issues when they travel far distances to get water. In some parts of South Africa, nearly 70 percent of women and children that frequently carry water containers on their head reported cases of spinal pains. Consequently, women and girls can suffer physical injuries or even muscular disorders when they constantly collect water from far distances. Without clean water, health risks also abound. About 44 million pregnant women are said to have sanitation-related infections that pose a considerable health burden in developing countries.

Addressing the needs of women in relation to water will go a long way in promoting gender equality and boosting economic prosperity. Across the world, investment in water and sanitation for women and girls is yielding significant benefit. In Morocco, women and young girls often go as far as 5 kilometers to get water, but the installation of new water systems doubled girls’ primary school attendance after a year. In Tanzania, a study showed that reducing the time it takes to fetch water from 30 to 15 minutes increased girls’ school attendance by more than 10 percent.

In order to address the challenges women and girls face in getting water today and improve access to clean drinking water for everyone, policy makers must implement policies and programs delivering on the human right to clean water and sanitation, and do so in a gender-responsive way. They must strive to build sustainable water supply systems and invest in gender data related to water, sanitation and hygiene. They must measure, monitor and actively respond to the need of citizens that are most affected by water shortages. They must strengthen water service providers’ capacity to address gender and water issues. Women and girls should be encouraged and given the opportunity to partake and make decision in gender-inclusive water programs. For example, Yemen’s Irrigation Improvement Project used participatory irrigation management to incorporate women’s participation in the project design and implementation processes. Consequently, two-thirds of targeted women experienced increased agriculture income, acquiring new assets, and making new investments for the benefit of their family.

The global water crisis hits women and girls hardest, and it is holding back our collective prosperity. If we improve access to safe and clean water for all, we could reduce barriers to quality health, education, and economic opportunity that women and girls face today. They will become safer, better educated, healthier, and more independent. More children, especially girls, will enjoy good health and be more likely to attend school. Women will devote less time to fetching water and be able to focus on income-generating activities. This will in turn make life easier and better for everyone.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.