-The Link between Safe Water and Gender Equality
By Ivan Kimbowa
In many parts of the world, billions of people still don’t have access to clean drinking water, proper toilets, and the ability to wash their hands with soap and water at home. Sadly, girls and women are the ones who suffer the most from this water and sanitation crisis.
A recent report titled “Progress on household drinking Water, Sanitation And Hygiene (WASH) 2000-2022: Special focus on Gender” provides a comprehensive analysis of gender inequalities in WASH, highlighting that women and girls are more likely to feel unsafe when using a toilet outside of their homes and disproportionately suffer from the consequences of inadequate hygiene.
Cecilia Sharp, the Director of WASH and CEED at UNICEF, emphasizes the impact of unsafe water, toilets, and hand-washing on girls, stating that each step taken by a girl to collect water distances her from learning, play, and safety.
These factors hinder their potential, compromise their well-being, and perpetuate cycles of poverty. To achieve universal access to water, sanitation, gender equality, and empowerment, it is crucial to address the specific needs of girls in WASH programs.
The report reveals that globally, 1.8 billion people live in households without water supplies on the premises. In 7 out of 10 such households, women and girls aged 15 and older are primarily responsible for water collection, compared to 3 in 10 households for their male counterparts.
Furthermore, girls under 15 are more likely (7 percent) than boys under 15 (4 percent) to fetch water. In most cases, women and girls endure longer journeys to collect water, sacrificing their time for education, work, and leisure, and exposing themselves to physical injuries and dangers along the way.
The report also indicates that over half a billion people still share sanitation facilities with other households, compromising the privacy, dignity, and safety of women and girls.
Recent surveys from 22 countries highlight that women and girls using shared toilets are more likely to feel unsafe walking alone at night and face the risks of sexual harassment and other safety concerns.
Additionally, inadequate WASH services pose health risks for women and girls, restricting their ability to manage their periods safely and privately.
Among 51 countries with available data, women and adolescent girls from the poorest households and those with disabilities are the most likely to lack a private space for washing and changing.
Dr. Maria Neira, the Director of the Environment, Climate Change, and Health Department at WHO, points out that the latest data reveals a harsh reality: inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene contribute to the loss of 1.4 million lives each year.
Neira noted that women and girls not only face WASH-related infectious diseases but also encounter additional health risks due to their vulnerability to harassment, violence, and injury when they have to go outside the home to fetch water or use the toilet.
The findings further highlight that a lack of access to hygiene disproportionately affects women and girls. As women and girls are often responsible for domestic chores and caregiving, including cleaning, food preparation, and tending to the sick, they are likely exposed to diseases and health risks without the protection of proper hand-washing.
The additional time spent on domestic chores can also hinder girls’ chances of completing secondary school and obtaining employment.
Presently, approximately 2.2 billion people, or 1 in 4 individuals, still lack safely managed drinking water at home, and 3.5 billion people, or 2 in 5 individuals, do not have safely managed sanitation. Moreover, 2 billion people, or 1 in 4 individuals, cannot wash their hands with soap and water at home.
The report acknowledges some progress made towards achieving universal access to WASH. Between 2015 and 2022, household access to safely managed drinking water increased from 69 to 73 percent, safely managed sanitation increased from 49 to 57 percent, and basic hygiene services increased from 67 to 75 percent.
However, meeting the Sustainable Development Goal target of universal access to safely managed drinking water, sanitation, and basic hygiene services by 2030 will require a significant increase in the current rates of progress: six-fold for safely managed drinking water, five-fold for safely managed sanitation, and three-fold for basic hygiene services.
Additional efforts are necessary to ensure that progress in WASH contributes to gender equality. This includes integrating gender considerations in WASH programs and policies, and collecting and analyzing disaggregated data to inform targeted interventions that address the specific needs of women, girls, and other vulnerable groups.