The Water and Sanitation Decade (1981-90) and

importance of involving both women and men in the management of water and
sanitation has been recognized at the global level, starting from the 1977
United Nations Water Conference at Mar del Plata, the International Drinking
Water and Sanitation Decade (1981-90) and the International Conference on Water
and the Environment in Dublin (January 1992), which explicitly recognizes the
central role of women in the provision, management and safeguarding of water
& Sanitation.

of the most observable divides between women and men, especially in developing
countries, is in water, sanitation and hygiene. The provision of hygiene and
sanitation are often considered women’s tasks. Women are promoters, educators
and leaders of home and community-based sanitation practices. However, women’s
concerns are rarely addressed, as societal barriers often restrict women’s
involvement in decision-making processes regarding toilets, sanitation programs
and projects. In many societies, women’s views as opposed to those of men are
systematically under-represented in decision-making bodies. The women can be
key agents of change if they are empowered and allowed to be involved at all
levels of planning, implementation and operation of water supply, sanitation
and hygiene projects.

“You can tell the condition of
a nation, by looking at its women”

“The day every one of us gets
a toilet to use, I shall know that our country has reached the pinnacle of

      – Jawaharlal Nehru

Access to clean drinking water and basic
sanitation is a worldwide concern. Almost 2.6 billion people in the world lack
access to improved sanitation with fewer than one billion people having access
to safe drinking water for domestic purposes (WHO, 2010). In the year 2000,
member-states of the United Nations agreed to eight Millennium Development
Goals (MDGs) to help alleviate global poverty. MDG Goal 7, to ensure
environmental sustainability, has a specific target to halve the proportion of
people unable to afford or reach safe drinking water and without access to
basic sanitation by 2015. With a national population of over 1.1 billion
people, safe drinking water and basic sanitation are vital to the people of
India. According to the 2001 Census, only 73 percent of people had access to
safe drinking water and 21.9 percent of people had toilets attached to homes in
rural areas (Census of India, 2001). Women and marginalized populations are
most impacted by a lack of water and sanitation (WatSan) in the country. Early
development initiatives of the 1950s and 1960s were dominated by males and
failed to take into account needs of women in water systems. Development
specialists, governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
sometimes maintain that WatSan programs lead to the empowerment of women and
gender equality. They believe that access to resources or participation in
decision-making will automatically lead to empowerment and gender equality.


and WatSan in India


is important to examine gender in the context of WatSan resources because
gender affects who has access to, who participates in the planning of, and who
manages WatSan systems. Many people confuse gender with sex. Sex is the
classification of species as female or male based on reproductive functions.
Gender not only includes perspectives of women but women and men of varied
socio-economic backgrounds.  Gender as
“the socially constructed identities, roles, and responsibilities of
women, men, and the relationship between them”. Rights, roles, and
responsibilities of women and men in society are rooted in culture and history.
Many factors determine which women or which men have the best access or the
most say in planning and managing WatSan systems. Social constructs such as
caste, class, race and ethnicity, income and wealth, or religion influence
interactions between women and men with regard to WatSan resources. These
constructs may be nuanced by nation, region, state, village, or household. All women
and all men do not have the same rights, roles, and responsibilities. Women and
men form heterogeneous groups with diverse needs and concerns.

have found that women and marginalized populations are disproportionately
excluded from WatSan access, planning, and management in India. Often women and
marginalized populations do not have equal access to water resources. Women are
the main users of water for domestic purposes (e.g. drinking, bathing, and
cooking) in rural areas in India, but in some locations they are barred from
using public water sources while menstruating. This is bound to historical
Hindu beliefs that women are impure during menstruation and pregnancy. Women
also use water for production purposes (e.g., animal husbandry, agriculture, or
fisheries), but those with higher social status will have better access to
water in rural India. Similarly, women are unable to purchase land or their
ownership-rights are not acknowledged due to patriarchal customs. They are not
able to participate in irrigation water management groups or their needs are
often not considered when planning or managing irrigation-water systems. Men
and women in a marginalized caste group known as Scheduled Castes (SCs) are not
allowed to access the same water sources (e.g., wells or community stand-posts)
as dominant caste groups in some rural villages in India. This is based on
historical Hindu beliefs that SCs are permanently impure and will pollute pure
water sources. Regularly women and marginalized populations also do not have
equal access to sanitation resources. Due to cultural norms, men in households
do not feel as restrained to urinate or defecate outside in rural India. This
may result in a lack of initiative to construct an individual toilet for
household use. One in ten young women attending a school without adequate
sanitation drop out once they hit puberty because there is no facility for
attending to the menstrual cycle. It is difficult for marginalized populations
lacking financial resources to afford to construct a toilet at their place of
residence. Inadequate access to WatSan has negative effects on women and
marginalized populations. Young women between the ages of 15 and 35 comprise
the majority responsible for collecting household water in India. Health,
access to education, and self-development of these young women are negatively
impacted. Women bear the burden of waking early, staying-up late, or traveling
long distances to collect water. Women tend to prioritize water for domestic or
productive needs (e.g. washing clothing) over personal needs (e.g. bathing).

without sanitation facilities may relieve themselves in the night or early
morning in fear of being seen by males. This puts them in danger from sexual
harassment or animal attacks. Women reduce food intake and hold defecation or
urination causing medical problems. In some places in India, SCs perform the
job of manual scavengers picking up human waste outside putting them at higher
risk for sanitation-related illnesses. Repeatedly women and marginalized
populations are not consulted for WatSan planning and management. Women,
indifferent of caste or class background, may be excluded from WatSan planning
and management. The most vulnerable women (i.e., SC and landless women) do not
help decide where to build standposts or provide suggestions on pricing of
water. Pour-flush toilets may increase workload if a water source is not
located nearby. Women are typically tasked with cleaning toilets. If the wrong
materials are used, the time taken to clean toilets will increase.

Involvement of women and marginalized
populations in access, planning, and management of WatSan systems has benefits.
Women and girls with increased access to water have better health. Improved
access to water allows women to become more involved in income generation, and
this stimulates the local economy (Asian Development Bank (ADB), n.d.). Better
access to sanitation gives young women the opportunity to attend school. The
inclusion of women and marginalized populations in WatSan planning and
management ensures systems are built and managed to serve the needs of the
whole community. It promotes community cohesion and allows people to take
long-term ownership of WatSan systems. Research has shown that WatSan systems
with women involved in planning and management are more sustainable over time.


and Gender Equality


has been defined in variety of ways. The root of the word empowerment is power.
Empowerment is a relational concept where people who previously lacked power
are able to obtain power. This could be power over physical, human,
intellectual, financial, or ideological matters defines empowerment as a
process of change “by which those who have been denied the ability to make
choices acquire such an ability”. She states the empowerment process
includes obtaining resources (material, human, or social), securing agency
(sense of inner power, decision-making, bargaining and negotiation, deception
and manipulation, subversion and resistance, or reflection and analysis), and
realizing achievements (outcomes such as basic needs).  “Self-confidence and a sense of
self-efficacy are important precursors to action. The process of taking action
and reaping the rewards further reinforces these feelings, creating virtuous
cycles of reflection and action”. The empowerment process, while often
facilitated by external organizations, should arise from within an individual
or collective group of individuals. The term is rooted in the work of Paolo
Freire whose theory of conscientization describes a process in which the poor
challenge power structures and control their own lives. Gender equality has
been described as: “The situation where women and men enjoy the same
status and have equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities for realizing
their full human rights and potential. It implies equal access to and control over
resources by women and men”.

equity is acknowledging different gender needs and devising plans that involve
different treatment for women and men to influence equal outcomes. Rights,
roles, and opportunities of women and men are influenced by caste, class, race
and ethnicity, income and wealth, or religion. Gender is based in historical
and social constructs. These elements must be considered to distinguish gender
equality or inequality.

Empowerment is a process of change from
disempowerment where women or marginalized populations can be agents of change.
An empowerment approach to development is bottom-up. Women or marginalized
populations realize power imbalances and work for equitable allocation of
resources and fair decision-making. A gender-equality approach to development
can be bottom-up or top-down. In a top-down gender equality approach, women or
marginalized populations are beneficiaries of projects, programs, or policies
for equal allocation of resources and fair decision-making. Empowerment on the
individual level may bring about gender equality on the community level, and
empowerment on the community level may bring about gender equality on the
political level.




Access to water and sanitation are
recognized as fundamental human rights, incorporated in the International
Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. The rights to water and
sanitation require that these basics are adequate, accessible, safe, acceptable
and affordable for all without discrimination, and violations of these
constitute a violation of women’s rights.

Participation is key to claiming rights.
A lack of informed participation by women often results in WASH services that
are inappropriate, inaccessible and unaffordable. Programmes that include women
at all stages of planning, implementing and monitoring are more efficient,
effective and sustainable than those that do not prioritize equitable
participation and decision-making.

WASH programmes need to work in
collaboration with other initiatives that address discrimination and women’s
rights violations. Programmes must strengthen the connections between the
rights to water and sanitation and other rights, including to health,
education, food, work, land, freedom from violence, and the right to information.
Equipping people with knowledge of their rights and the skills to undertake
advocacy for themselves, by themselves, really can shift the balance of power.

Indian women demand their right to water
The Centre of Rural Studies and Development (CRSD), an Indian rights-based
organization, selected women to take part in advocacy and human rights
training. The women formed groups in their villages, held meetings to raise
awareness about women’s issues, and analyzed solutions and strategies that
could help improve their lives. They organized workshops between community
leaders and the Rural Water Supply Department aimed at making the department
more responsive. They developed support networks and used the media to
pressurize the government to take corrective measures. They also demanded their
rights through peaceful rallies and demonstrations. Consequently, the women now
feel more confident to articulate their demands to a variety of stakeholders.
Men are starting to accept the women’s new leadership roles and the Rural Water
Supply Department is more responsive and accountable to the communities. The
quality of services has improved and women spend an average of 20% less time
collecting water.