Gender perspectives on water and food security

from UN Women
Published on 31 Aug 2012 View Original

Remarks by Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women at the Closing Plenary Session of the 2012 World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, 31 August 2012.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning to you all. It is a pleasure to be here and address this closing plenary session of the 2012 World Water Week. I would like to thank the Stockholm International Water Institute for inviting UN Women to participate in World Water Week and for providing an important space for a discussion on gender equality and women’s empowerment in the context of water.

Our meeting this week in Stockholm and our rich debates on the theme of Water and Food Security took place against the backdrop of severe droughts around the world. From the worst drought in 56 years in the Midwest of the United States, to the Karnataka’s drought in India, to the protracted drought in the Sahel region of West Africa, we have seen the very concrete consequences of the nexus between lack of water and food security.

The impact of the draught in the Midwest has already resulted in higher prices for corn and soybeans, two of the most important food crops worldwide. In the Sahel, 18.7 million people are facing food insecurity and more than 1 million children under the age of five are at risk of severe acute malnutrition.

These environmental events have direct economic and social consequences. They remind us of the critical inter-linkages between these three dimensions – economic, social and environmental – and of the strong connection between water availability, affordability and quality and food security.

Today, I would like to highlight the importance of a gender perspective in looking at these connections. Women and girls – and the way they are impacted by access to water – constitute a large part of the picture, and most importantly a large part of the solution, in the nexus between water and food security.

Rio+20 – a reaffirmation of key linkages

I recently returned from the Rio+20 Conference. Rio+20 represented a milestone in its reaffirmation of the vital role women play in sustainable development. The Rio+20 outcome document reaffirms the commitment of the international community to ensuring women’s equal rights, access, participation and leadership in the economy, society and political decision-making.

This is also essential in the context of water. Too often, women and girls are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to water and, although women carry most of the water related tasks, play a key role in food production, especially in subsistence farming and perform most of the unpaid care work, their participation in decision making processes on water and food management remains very low. This does not only result in biased and misinformed decision-making, it jeopardizes the achievement of women’s human rights.

The Rio+20 outcome document clearly stresses the commitment of the international community ‘to the progressive realization of access to safe and affordable drinking water and basic sanitation for all, as necessary for poverty eradication, women’s empowerment and protection of human health”.

It stresses the need to ensure women’s leadership and effective participation in sustainable development policies, programmes and decision-making at all levels. It further reiterates the importance of empowering rural women as critical agents for enhancing agricultural and rural development, food security and nutrition. Women’s access to productive and economic resources is also emphasized, which, as we know, is essential in the context of access to water.

This provides a strong basis for greater success and accelerated action in these areas.

The Rio+20 outcome also sets in motion a number of processes, including the development of Sustainable Development Goals. It is not only important that these Goals include a specific goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment, but gender perspectives must be mainstreamed in all other goals, including a Sustainable Development Goal on water. This will give the goals a better chance to be achieved and, at the same time, contribute to the achievement of gender equality.

The issues: women at the center of the nexus between water and food security

Water is used for a wide range of activities – all of which have a bearing on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

In the household, it is used for drinking, cleaning, conservation, storage and preparation of crops and food. For instance in developing countries, most women’s survival strategies for lifting themselves and their families out of poverty through preparing and selling food takes place in the household.

It is used in economic sectors such as agriculture, industry and services. For instance, Current estimates have shown that 70 per cent of the world’s water is needed for agriculture, 20 per cent for industry, and 10 per cent for personal use, although these dimensions are interrelated as agricultural and industrial use of water also affect personal and domestic use.

Water is also a global common with oceans, rivers and other natural water sources critical for generating income, sustaining livelihoods (e.g fish supply in river ponds) and safeguarding public health, especially for poor households, and women and girls in these households.

The recently-issued 2012 MDG report points out that, while the MDG target on water has been largely met, 783 million people still remain without access to an improved source of drinking water. The gap between urban and rural areas remains wide, with the number of people in rural areas without an improved water source five times greater than in urban areas.

This lack of access often results in additional burden for women and girls. When water supplies are not readily accessible, it must be carried from its source and women and girls continue to bear the primary responsibility for water collection. The 2012 MDG Report highlights that, in Sub-Saharan Africa, 71 percent of the water collection burden falls on women and girls. Globally, it is estimated that women spend more than 200 million hours per day collecting water.

The linkages between water and food security are most significant in four ways.

Firstly, in gender entitlement systems: looking at gender differences in the access and control over water and other productive resources, assets, services and opportunities for ensuring food and nutrition security. Due to pervasive gender norms and behaviors, women and girls have restricted access to productive resources, such as water, land, agricultural inputs, finance and credit, extension services and technology.

This, in turn, limits the efficiency of the agricultural sector to deliver food security for all. For instance, poor women, rural women, women in peri-urban areas, women farmers, and women have often been denied access to a water source due to social constructs, such as class, ethnicity and cultural constraints in the community.

Secondly, in the gendered division of labour, women and girls are the most overburdened with managing water, food and energy scarcity with their unpaid work, especially in developing countries. Entrenched gender roles mean that women and girls often bear the brunt of the associated hardships as growers and processors of food, responsible for the nutrition of their family, and water collectors.

They spend a disproportionate number of hours on labour-intensive, time-consuming and unpaid domestic tasks such as fetching water and firewood, washing clothes and dishes and preparing meals. This leads to their drudgery, reducing their opportunities to education, decent work and political engagement, and perpetuating the intergenerational transfer of poverty and disempowerment.

Thirdly, in gendered patterns of production, women dominate subsistence agriculture and unpaid water collection tasks while men dominate the cash crops. Women are involved both in irrigated and non-irrigated agriculture. However a larger number of women than men are engaged in rain-fed agriculture, which puts them in a more at risk of changing weather patterns. In addition, water rights are often related to land rights, which preclude women smallholder farmers from accessing irrigated water.

Finally, in gendered patterns of governance and leadership, which exclude women from policy making and management in the water and agricultural sectors. In 2012, women held less than 6 per cent of all ministerial positions in the field of environment, natural resources and energy.

The combined impacts of the recent economic and financial crises, volatile energy and food prices, and climate change, have exacerbated water and food scarcity, and their detrimental impact on women and girls. Creating a water and food secure world requires putting women and girls at the center of water and food related policies, actions and financing.

Women are an important part of the solutions to water and food scarcity

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Gender equality is not only a basic human right, but its achievement has enormous socio-economic benefits for water security and food security. Empowering women and girls fuels thriving economies and inclusive societies, spurring productivity and growth. I would like to highlight four urgent actions related to water that must be taken to unleash women’s potential.

Firstly, we need to recognize women as water resource managers, farmers and irrigators who contribute to ensuring sustainable food production and consumption, and safeguarding the environment and water resources within the households and communities. This must be done in laws, policies and through social awareness programmes in communities.

Secondly, we need to increase our efficiency in managing food and water resources, ensuring that women are empowered along the water and food supply chain, that their food production and water management roles are supported.

This involves recognizing women as independent users of water and enabling women to access water rights, regardless of land ownership; supporting women’s food production systems and value chains, including in adaptation and mitigation of climate change; and alleviating women and girls’ unpaid work burden associated with water collection, food production and processing, and care work.

For instance, in Morocco the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project of the World Bank aimed to reduce the burden of girls who were traditionally involved in fetching water in order to improve their school attendance. In the six provinces where the project is based, it was found that girls’ school attendance increased by 20 per cent in four years, attributed in part to the fact that girls spent less time fetching water. At the same time, convenient access to safe water reduced time spent collecting water by women and young girls by 50 to 90 per cent.

It has also been proven that improvements in infrastructure services— especially water and electricity—can help free up women’s time spent on domestic and care work. In Pakistan, putting water sources closer to the home was associated with increased time allocated to market work. In Tanzania, a survey found that girls’ school attendance was 15 percent higher for girls from homes located 15 minutes or less from a water source than in homes one hour or more away.

Thirdly, we need to address the multifaceted gender discrimination in accessing and controlling productive resources such as water and land, assets and services. Evidence suggests that investing in women-owned food and agricultural enterprises could narrow the resource gap and increase agricultural yields to potentially reduce the number of hungry people by 100 to 150 million.

It is important to identify constraints that prevent different groups of women from accessing water resources, such as social and gender constructs, and power relations in the community, and facilitate the removal of these constraints. Women must be provided with technical training on water management, irrigation, rainwater harvesting, other small holder irrigation technologies and rain-fed agriculture.

For instance, in South Africa, Lesotho and Uganda, the women ministers for water are implementing affirmative action programmes in the water sector to train women for water and sanitation related careers, including science and engineering. At local level, women have found their voices and have now been trained to locate water sources in the village, decide on the location of facilities and repair pumps.

Water supply services must cover the needs of the poorer sections of the population by initiating reforms that make water affordable to poor families in rural, urban and peri-urban areas. It is indeed common knowledge that the poorest, the majority of whom are women, have less access to safe drinking water and pay more for their water usage. Access to land, extension services, credit and other productive resources is also key.

Fourthly, we need to leverage the voice, participation and influence of women in managing the sustainable use of water resources and food, and sharing benefits equally. Women must be recognized as important decision-makers in water governance.

In all countries and at all levels, women should be members of water management institutions, such as water user organizations. This involves reducing membership fees and broadening the mandate of irrigation schemes to acknowledge and include multiple water users.

This will not help ensuring that gender perspectives are mainstreamed in all governance and decision making processes related to policy development, implementation and monitoring, service delivery, and financing on water and agriculture. This will only work with strong accountability frameworks that ensure that women’s agency in water and food governance is encouraged and facilitated.

It is crucial to address water security and their gender dimensions in national development plans, poverty reduction strategies, agricultural and rural development policies, and other development frameworks. Equitable water security needs to be a public policy priority. We need to catalyze alliance, knowledge sharing, commitment, innovations, actions and financing to address the nexus between food security and water from a gender perspective.

It is critical to meet the public costs of getting water where it is mostly needed to allow the fulfillment of women’s rights in all areas need to be met, using gender responsive budgeting, both at national and local levels. Pledges and aid allocations for water need to primarily target infrastructures, services and solutions that would mostly benefit women and girls.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Women and girls are thirsty for available, accessible and affordable clean and safe water. We can no longer ruin their potential to become inspiring leaders, successful entrepreneurs or healthy mothers due to their heavy burden of fetching water.

While governments must prioritize women and girls in their national policies, the international community must prioritize gender equality and women’s empowerment in the new development agenda. Development can neither be sustainable nor inclusive if it does not free women and girls from carrying heavy water buckets everyday.

A Sustainable Development goal on water should prioritize women’s full participation in water governance, the alleviation of their work burden and the availability of gender sensitive infrastructures and services.

Targets and indicators must take into account the gender perspectives that hold the potential to bring about greater and more sustainable progress. Statistical challenges related to the availability of sex disaggregated data and gender sensitive indicators on water, rather than detracting us from using meaningful indicators, should be used as a trigger for political demand for the regular collection and analysis of important data, such as those collected by time use surveys.

As we move towards the 2013 international year for water cooperation, we need to catalyze alliance, knowledge sharing, commitment, innovations, actions and financing to address issues related to affordability, accessibility and availability of safe and sufficient water for all at all levels. UN Women will be a strong advocate for leveraging women’s voice and influence in water governance and I count on all of you to support us in this process.

Thank you.