Monday, 8 March 2010

Why gender equality needs sanitation and water for all – and vice versa

On International Women’s Day we need to be reminded of the inherent interconnectedness between gender justice, sanitation and water, and the eradication of poverty. The links are so clear, and circular.

When a community lacks safe sanitation or clean water, it is the women and girls in that community who suffer most. Time spent fetching water, often hours every day, keeps millions of girls out of school and prevents women from being able to spend time on more economically productive – and liberating – work.

Half of the girls in Africa who drop out of school do so either because they have water-carrying duties or their schools lack the sanitary facilities they need during menstruation. Further, much of the financial cost of the sanitation and water crisis – estimated to be worth 5% of Africa’s GDP – is a result of the economic waste and exclusion time-consuming water carrying entails.

Add to this the impacts on mothers when 2.2 million children are lost each year due to preventable causes relating to water and sanitation, and the increased risk of physical and sexual abuse when women travel far to fetch water or use sanitation facilities, and it is clear that water and sanitation is a women’s issue.

The Millennium Development Goals will not work for women unless the targets on water and sanitation are met. But likewise, progress on those targets will be severely constrained without significant improvements in the status and power of women in their own communities and polities.

For one, inequitable access to land rights – only 2% of the world’s land is owned by women - is a key underlying factor in the lack of access to water, and the greater levels of poverty in female-headed households.

And just as fundamentally is the fact that women’s voices are not sufficiently heard or respected in investment choices.

Research shows that women value sanitation facilities much more strongly than men, due to the greater effects they face relating to health, security and dignity. Increasing expressed demand for sanitation is a key way to drive supply, and the UN Human Development Report (2006) argues that women’s empowerment may be the most effective ways of doing this, thus expanding coverage for all.

International Women’s Day falls just two weeks before World Water Day, and both provide key moments to fight for action to improve gender equality. Make sure you take action and join The World’s Longest Toilet Queue to make a stand for sanitation, water and women’s rights.

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