Posted July 13th 2010 at 9:16 am by
in Gender and Water

Gender and Water

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.

A woman fetching water in Sub-Saharan Africa (source: United Nations)

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.

A women collecting water in South Asia (source: UNWATER)

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.

8 responses to “Gender and Water”

  1. Aditi Mehta says:

    Hi Jordi,

    Very interesting post!

    Have you seen this documentary about public toilets in India?

    The film also makes many of the points you do.

    I once read a study about the effects of a huge public toilet project in a Mumbai slum. One of the findings was that the toilet complex not only fulfilled sanitation needs, but also served as a gathering place and safe public space for women in the slum. This demonstrates the lack of comfortable areas for females to gather and organize in their community about these very issues.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Interesting correlation between gender inequality and sanitation. However I think the issue is more a lack of education regarding sanitation amongst the population. They don’t know any better and therefore continue to engage in unhealthy habits. I think that is the key to solving most of India’s problems. Educate and inform starting at a young age.

  3. Aditi Mehta says:

    I agree that education about safe public health practices is crucial in solving some of these problems, but I don’t think it is fair to say that people don’t know any better. Even when people in slums know about sanitary practices, sometimes they have no other choices or opportunities to change their behaviors because of the lack of resources in their community. Solving the problem is not just about education, but about providing the slum communities with the necessary infrastructure and public services such as trash collection so that people actually have the choice to change their behaviors.

  4. Alexa Mills says:

    My primary question after reading this post is whether there are any opportunities to create new jobs related to water transport and delivery or new sanitary plans. If a community were to decide on a public toilet like the one Aditi described, who would get the contract to build the infrastructure? Could there be other community economic benefits involved in improved sanitation?

  5. Christophe says:


    I think you raise some very strong points with regards to targeting women in order to implement effective WASH programming. You draw attention to the deeply significant social component of water and santitation, which some people can sometimes confuse for being an issue of engineering alone. While important, state-of-the-art water and sanitation infrastructures are only effective when habits are changed and the right people are targeted in such work (as mentioned by many just now). It looks as though you are doing exactly that, and I am very curious to hear more from you in future posts.

    Thanks so much again for the post!

    a couple of things you might find interesting:

    First, MIT’s International Development Initiative recently had the 2010 Muhammad Yunus Challenge, calling on MIT students to design innovative approaches of disseminating handwashing practices to people in the developing world.

    Second, you might be interested in looking into the research done by MIT Professor Susan Murcott, who designs and actively disseminates low-cost, low-tech water purification techniques and prototypes in the developing world as well as safe household water storage units. Women are a significant component of her work.

    Best of luck to you!


  6. Karin Brandt says:

    I’m looking forward to learning how women’s knowledge on water and sanitation will address the communities’ sanitation needs. I remember being so impressed by women in northern Ghana who collected water from various sources according to changes in weather, time of day, season, etc. to bring home the best possible water. I hope you can share women’s insights from your project with us!

  7. Ben Hyman says:


    This is very interesting. I worked with an energy and water non-profit in Nicaragua, and we also observed pressure from communities for women not to get involved with the more “tehcnical” aspects of water and energy infrastructure maintenance. We were able to change those norms by awarding certificates and including the women in the manufacturing demonstrations, how water filters are made, how electric systems work, to a point where they were thought of as more valuable members in the maintenance of the systems.

    Keep up the good work!


  8. Jordi Sanchez-Cuenca says:

    Thank you all for such interesting comments and links.

    Education is indeed very important, but it is as important not to make education an imposition of outsiders’ culture. Education is an exercise of reflexion, critical thought, creativity and exchenge of knowledge. Many such communities have good knowledge and underused assets that might need some external support to get better structured and be more effective. In our program we see education as an integral part, but we try to build it from their own context.

    I agree with Aditi that adequate infrastructure and public services are essential.

    The atcivities of NSDF, Mahila Milan and SPARC in India are a very good example of how sanitation can be an empowering process for women, politically, economically and socially. I strongly recommend this article: