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The Gendered Burden of Water

Global Food for Thought by Michael Tiboris
South Sudanese carry water containers on their heads

Humans all need water for roughly the same things and in roughly the same amounts. And yet, water insecurity has profoundly disproportionate effects on women.

Water insecurity

Humans all need water for roughly the same things and in roughly the same amounts. And yet, water insecurity has profoundly disproportionate effects on women. These effects manifest in a variety of ways, are intensified by climate change, and speak to the need for gender-focused approaches to solving global development challenges.

Water insecurity is the inability of a population to gain sustainable access to adequate safe water for basic health and development. Globally, women and girls experience it at higher rates than men. Some of the reasons for this are well understood and linked to the low levels of safe water access among the global poor. Among poor populations, women also have fewer resources as they are often the last to eat, receive less healthcare, and collect much of the water for household use in the developing world. More 260 million people globally have no safe water access within thirty minutes of their home. The physical act of traveling to gather this water is extremely time-consuming, physically taxing, and often dangerous.

It is almost exclusively carried out by women and girls.

Gender in Water, Sanitation, and Health

In Uganda, for instance, the UN reports that women spend an average of 15-17 hours per week simply collecting water, frequently walking more than 6 miles carrying containers of water that weigh about 40 pounds.

Exposure to untreated water—before it can be brought home and boiled—exposes women and girls to waterborne illnesses and has been linked to poor school attendance. Even small drops in the amount of time needed for water collection substantially reduce these risks. A five minute shorter trip, for instance, reduces the risk of diarrheal disease and increases bodyweight for young children by 14 percent, while a fifteen-minute shorter trip reduces the risk of diarrheal disease by more than 40 percent.

Even in places where water security is more common on average, there are significant gendered differences at the household level. Women polled about their water collection activities in Kenya expressed widely shared concerns about their physical safety while fetching water. Women, and to a lesser extent, girls, give up their share of household water resources to male family members, and not necessarily out of self-sacrifice. Insufficient household water and sudden rainfall shocks have been associated with more violence directed at female family members, higher rates of female homelessness compared to male homelessness, and even reduce age of child marriage.

Gendered Losses in Economic Productivity

Water insecurity has gendered consequences for economic productivity as the time lost to water collection and illness for women is substantial. Improving water access would permit women to use this time more productively and contribute to poverty reduction and improved school attendance.

Two women carry water through snow in Pattan, India

Two women carry water through snow in Pattan, India.

Water security is also a challenge for female farmers. Adaptation to climate change appears to be happening more slowly for them compared to their male peers. A study in Uganda found that farmers have begun to notice a range of climate effects, including declining soil quality, more frequent flooding, and new pests, but that rates of adaptation are noticeably gendered. In some places, women are formally excluded from land ownership, which is a major barrier to water security as well as food security. Gender equitable land tenure reforms, which would allow women to get loans for farm improvements and to be eligible for initiatives aimed at landholding farmers, would thus contribute to food and water security as well as climate resilience.

Water Equity

These obstacles are serious, but they also suggest some fairly straightforward remedies. Investment in water, sanitation, and hygiene initiatives bring water closer to the household and provide safe water and sanitation at schools. This is a tremendous difference for affected women and girls. Improvements to women’s legal rights and access to financial services improve their ability to secure water rights for more productive farming. Exposing the links between water insecurity and sexual and gender-based violence provide further impetus for investing in household water security.

A gender-focused approach to water security is not only a matter of justice—it also provides an effective and efficient path to make major gains in food and water security and reductions in poverty. Major institutions, such as the World Bank and USAID, recognize this and valuable new metrics for measuring and assessing the gender dynamics of water insecurity are currently being developed. Men and women experience water insecurity differently.  Acknowledging this and treating it as a serious consideration in policymaking are critical steps toward meeting just about any major global development goals.

About the Author
Nonresident Fellow, Global Water
Council expert Michael Tiboris
Michael Tiboris is nonresident global water fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and was a public fellow for the American Council of Learned Societies. His research focuses on primary resource stability as a foreign policy objective, and is particularly focused on water resource policy, cooperative resource governance, and global justice.
Council expert Michael Tiboris