Exploring the ripple effects of clean water and sanitation on gender equality

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. At its core are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a blueprint for eliminating extreme poverty, reducing inequalities, rehabilitating our natural environment, ensuring access to justice, improving well-being and building the global partnerships needed for sustainable development. These goals are deeply interconnected – a lack of progress for one hinders progress for all. As this week marks World Water Week, we reflect on the specific links that exist between SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation and SDG 5 – Gender Equality, and how achieving these two goals together can impact all the other SDGs. 

Access to safe drinking water and water services is a fundamental human right, and when women and girls are unable to exercise those rights all aspects of their life – health, education, food security and economic opportunities – are profoundly affected.  

SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by inadequate access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services – 1 billion women lack access to safely managed drinking water, 1.7 billion women lack access to safely managed sanitation, and, every year, over 800,000 women lose their lives due to insufficient access to safe water. Today, over 380 million women live in some of the most water-stressed countries, and this number is expected to rise to 674 million by 2050. Yet, gender inequalities limit their access to land and water resources, thereby increasing their vulnerability to this global water crisis.

Inadequate access to WASH also exacerbates women and girls’ exposure to harassment and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Women and girls, especially those living in poorer rural communities, are the primary users and providers of water in their communities. When access to safe drinking water is limited, they are responsible for collecting water for their families. In fact, in two out of three households women are primarily responsible for water collection for which they are forced to walk long distances. During these walks, women and girls are at a greater risk of SGBV. 

SDG 4 – Quality Education

Women and girls around the world spend an estimated 200 million hours collecting water every day. This reduces the time that women and girls have for other activities such as attending school regularly. In addition, the lack of safe drinking water and basic handwashing and sanitation facilities in schools also significantly impacts school attendance and drop-out rates, particularly when girls menstruate. This further perpetuates gender inequality. 

SDG 2 – Zero Hunger and SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-Being

Water, sanitation and hygiene are essential to address the health needs of women and girls, in particular in the areas of sexual and reproductive health (SRH). Inadequate WASH facilities, particularly in health centers, put women’s health at risk, especially during pregnancy and childbirth, and expose them to infections and diseases. For example, there are one million deaths per year due to unsanitary conditions during birth. In addition, facilities to safely and privately manage menstrual hygiene remain inadequate for 500 million women and girls, exposing them to serious health risks. 

Water is also linked to nutrition and is an essential component of strategies to reduce undernutrition and address women’s nutritional needs.

SDG 1 – No Poverty and SDG 8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth

The time women and girls spend on water collection also limits women’s ability to engage in other productive activities and earn an income. In fact, 70% of the estimated economic benefits of WASH are related to time-saving. When the burden of water collection is reduced, women and girls have access to a wider range of employment opportunities, which contributes to the promotion of full and productive employment, decent work for all, and ultimately helps in eradicating poverty.

Additionally, women make up 50% of the agricultural labour force in the developing world, and since agriculture is heavily water-dependent, limited access to water threatens their livelihoods.

SDG 13 – Climate Action and SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions 

In the aftermath of natural disasters, conflicts and emergencies of all kinds, water supplies are often contaminated or destroyed along with sanitation facilities. Climate change and pollution have also intensified stress on water resources and have consequences for the availability and continuity of WASH services. This exerts disproportionate pressure on women and girls who are largely responsible for securing basic household needs including water and food. It also increases their difficulties in accessing water and sanitation facilities that are necessary for menstrual hygiene management, healthy pregnancies and births, food security and overall health. 

Women and girls play a central role in the provision, management and safeguarding of water in their homes and communities, yet they are too often excluded from water governance and management. To achieve gender equality, women must be recognized as catalysts for change in ensuring equitable access to water. Promoting women’s meaningful participation and leadership in WASH, will create safer, more adequate and affordable access to WASH services for all. 

Read more:

From commodity to common good: A feminist agenda to tackle the world’s water crisis

Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000-2022: Special focus on gender


August 21, 2023