In this post Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca reveals the connection between water and gender in the developing world. Jordi works in Ecuador with an international development programme called Governance of the Water and Sanitation Sector in Ecuador within the framework of the MDG, with UN-HABITAT.
Deficiencies in water and sanitation services have a lot to do with gender inequality. This is the reality I came to realize and had to deal with when I worked on reconstructing tsunami-hit villages in India. There, through practice, I realized that it is nearly impossible to sort out problems related to water and sanitation in a sustainable manner if gender relations are not seriously taken into account.
What is it that makes gender relations so important? Imagine the daily routine of a low-income woman in a small city or village anywhere in the developing world, which is probably more than one billion women. It is a fact that practically all of these women spend several hours of their daytime looking after the family’s health, the cleanliness of the house and everyone’s clothes, providing drinking water and food to all, tasks on which men rarely spend more than just a few minutes. All this work makes the special link that women have to water. In many instances these women spend more than an hour a day just to fetch water, and in many of these cases the place where water is collected becomes the space where women relate to other women and strengthen the whole community’s cohesion. Such is the importance of women in keeping the family healthy, productive, happy and socially well situated. Think that waterborne diseases are the second cause of child mortality worldwide; one in six children in Sub-Saharan Africa die before their fifth birthday, according to UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund).
Then comes sanitation: men can easily meet their sanitation needs outdoors, while women simply cannot. Lack of adequate sanitation typically makes women hold their needs all day long, which provokes serious health problems. Night open defecation or having to go far from home at night poses serious security risks, including rape. Despite the importance of having access to sanitation that is close to home, clean, safe, affordable and intimate for any woman, more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation, and the majority of them are women, according to UN (United Nations) figures.
Why is all the work and burden women face so rarely taken into account when decisions are made inside the household or in public policy? This has an explanation: unequal, unjust gender relations. Yes, gender inequality is one of the main factors behind child mortality, as well as many other issues related to poverty. Indeed, gender inequality is the reason why women are the poorest of the poor, says UNIFEM (United Nations Development fund for Women).
How are we dealing with this issue in the water and sanitation programme? The first thing we did is to identify people in the four provinces we are working in that are committed and active in their localities in promoting equal gender relations. We did not find one man sufficiently sensitized, so we only identified women. The idea is that these women become our allies in the programme at the local level, ensuring that gender is mainstreamed and that all actions respond to the specific needs of local women. We are at the moment creating province-level decision-making platforms, which gather representatives of municipalities, water utilities and civil society. The decisions of who benefits from capacity building activities, educational campaigns, institutional reform measures and pilot infrastructure investments will be made inside these platforms. These women will be inside them, influencing and setting precedents. The programme will capacitate them before they enter these platforms, with argumentative tools and key information, and with a plan. Their participation is voluntary and the deal is as follows: we support them in their local gender justice agenda; they support the programme in meeting the planned specific gender outputs and impacts.
In my next post I’ll be describing some of the women that will be helping us in mainstreaming gender in the programme, and how I expect them to make a difference in the water and sanitation sector through the programme.
For more information about gender and water, see these sites:
Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca is a Spanish urban planner, trained in Barcelona’s School of Architecture and London’s Development Planning Unit. He has work experience in the private, public, academic and NGO sector in Barcelona, Hanoi, Ghana and several cities in India, and he is currently working for UN-HABITAT in Quito, Ecuador, in a governance of the water and sanitation sector programme.