Achieving Sustainable Development Goals 5 and 6: The case for gender-transformative water programmes

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In March 2020, we commemorate both International Women’s Day and World Water Day. The year 2020 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Beijing Declaration, and the ten-year anniversary of the General Assembly resolution 64/292, recognizing the human right to water and sanitation. This year, we also begin the 10-year countdown to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As we approach these milestones, it seems apt to take stock of the progress (or lack thereof) made on SDG 5 – gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment, and SDG 6 – access to water and sanitation for all. While gender equality and the right to water and sanitation are intrinsically linked, we are far from achieving either of these goals.

Today, more than two billion people lack access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation services. An estimated 673 million people practice open defecation, and data suggest that achieving universal access to even basic sanitation services by 2030 would require doubling the current annual rate of progress. Water scarcity affects more than 40% of the global population and is projected to rise, with more than 1.7 billion people currently living in river basins where water use exceeds recharge. With the impacts of climate change increasing, issues of water access and scarcity will worsen and disproportionately affect poor communities.

At the same time, gender inequality persists as a result of unfair social norms, legal discrimination, women’s under-representation in politics, and violence against women and girls. One in five women and girls aged 15–49 have reported experiencing sexual and/or physical violence by an intimate partner in the past year. Women spend three times as much time as men on unpaid care and domestic work. Globally, women’s representation in national parliaments and elected local deliberative bodies averages only 24% and 26%, respectively. At the current rate of progress, it will take 170 years before we achieve full economic gender equality.

Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are deeply relevant for women’s and girls’ empowerment, affecting their education, health, income and safety. The 1992 Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development stated: ‘Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water’ and policies should ‘address women’s specific needs’ and ‘empower women to participate at all levels in water resources programmes, including decision-making and implementation, in ways defined by them’. The 1995 Beijing Declaration also referenced gender equality in relation to water, stating ‘inadequate access to safe water, sanitation facilities … all overburden women and their families and have a negative effect on their health’. The Declaration calls for ensuring that ‘women's priorities are included in public investment programmes for economic infrastructure, such as water and sanitation’.

We know that women and girls – especially those living in poverty – are disproportionately affected by a lack of water and sanitation services, making SDG 5 and 6 fundamentally interdependent. Inadequate sanitation and hygiene put women’s health and survival at risk during pregnancy and childbirth. Girls may drop out of school or suffer psychological stress because of the lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities in their communities. In 8 out of 10 households without a water source on the premises, women and girls are responsible for water collection. Globally, they spend an estimated 200 million hours collecting water every day. In addition to placing them at risk of violence and harassment, spending time on water collection can prevent girls from attending school and limits women’s ability to engage in other productive activities. Furthermore, despite being responsible for household water needs, women are often under-represented in water governance, including water user committees. As a result, development policies fail to recognize women as key stakeholders in water management and perpetuate cycles of gender inequality.

The only explicit reference to women and girls under SDG 6 relates to sanitation and hygiene (Target 6.2) – but not to water access and management. Of the Voluntary National Reports submitted for the 2018 High-Level Political Forum, only five countries mentioned the interlinkages between water and women as priorities for achieving the SDGs. The SDGs do not highlight the role of women in water beyond Targets 6.1 and 6.2, which only relate to water access, sanitation and hygiene – and not, for example, to water governance. Indicators under SDG 6 mostly rely on data from water utilities and institutional records, which do not necessarily reflect quality or equity of services, or informal service delivery. In sum, the theoretical recognition that women and girls are key water and sanitation stakeholders has not translated to best practices on the ground. As Miletto et al. (2019) note: ‘Despite the countless number of gender and inclusion strategies within the water management sector, a clear gap remains evident between policies and practice and, most importantly, on the ground, where progress remains limited.’

Gender equality and access to water are basic human rights and are thus foundational for achieving the other SDGs. If we are to achieve these ambitious goals by 2030, leaving no one behind, we must promote more gender-transformative water and sanitation programmes. In particular, we must address the hidden causes of gender inequality, transforming power dynamics. This briefing note sets out three key policy recommendations to do so:

  1. Increase the availability and quality of sex-disaggregated data on water, sanitation and hygiene, including water governance;

  2. Increase women’s leadership and meaningful participation in water governance and integrated water resources management (IWRM) at all levels (household, community, national, and transboundary);

  3. Challenge social norms around unpaid care work, women’s leadership, and genderbased violence.

This note highlights only some of the shortfalls in our approaches to achieving SDG 5 and 6. For example, it is also important to consider how age influences women’s and girls’ water and sanitation needs. In addition, with the increasing impacts of climate change, and as conflict over scarce water resources escalates, we must consider how women and girls will be affected differently – for example, whether such trends place them at greater risk of gender-based violence.