Gender equality is crucial for safe access to water

Photo: Anwar Huq, Creative Commons

Women spend around 200 million hours every day to collect water across the globe. According to, finding a suitable place to collect the water can take an additional 266 million hours each day, especially for the women who do not have toilets in their homes. This strenuous journey of carrying heavy vessels for a long time may have severe impacts on health, especially for pregnant women, including risks of bone disease and osteoporotic fractures. This also reduces the opportunities for women to be engaged in productive work and healthy lifestyles.

Despite much progress, ensuring access to safe water for all remains a challenge for Bangladesh. Bangladesh positions at number 86 among 142 countries with respect to drinking water quality (number one denotes having the safest water). Not having adequate sources of water has continued to increase the burden of water collection on women—two thirds of households rely on women for collecting water when there is no water source at home.

Different projects from government, NGOs and the private sector has led to lots of effort for ensuring access to safe water for women. However, if we want to truly reduce this burden on women, applying the gender lens to the matter is of equal importance. Our society is traditionally a patriarchal one, and access to water and the responsibility of sourcing it is definitely an issue of gender equality.

Any development project may take four approaches in the case of gender programming. A gender blind project will create, exacerbate or ignore gender inequalities in pursuit of project goals, whereas a gender sensitive one will maintain existing gender dynamics and roles in pursuit of project goals. A gender specific project will support and improve outcomes for a specific gender group in pursuit of project goals.

However, a gender transformative project is one that will actively reduce gender inequalities to enhance achievement of project goals. Gender transformative change seeks to consider multiple spheres of women's lives, where the change will have to occur in the household, within the community, and within systems and structures. These are the sort of projects that we now require to ensure that women are at the heart of project decision-making, and not just silent participants.

The USA funded project Nobo Jatra is a good example of how applying gender specific approaches in the construction of new water and sanitation facilities may contribute significantly to decreasing gendered inequalities. Through this project, existing water and sanitation facilities were upgraded, and latrines were relocated to safe places away from drinking water sources for ensuring safe access to water. Importantly, for women, these changes have meant a reduced need to collect water, improved water quality and improved sanitation services. Besides, this approach also contributed in improving relationships between men and women, between women, and between women and government officials by keeping women in important decision-making roles at the heart of the project.

Gender transformative changes have been found to be translated into other domains as well. For example, women's involvement in NGO meetings and their input in decision-making has had positive impacts. Especially at the household level, men and women both commonly described increased confidence of women at home, and increased roles in decision-making processes. At the community level, there was also evidence that women were playing a greater role in community meetings and in informing decision-making beyond their participation in the NGO project.

As noted by a local woman in one of the project's focus group discussions: "Our capacity to get things done has improved. Other women come to us when they encounter a problem. Now, they can influence others in relation to water and sanitation. They share various sorts of information with others."

At a union level Water and Sanitation Committee in Pankhali in Khulna district, participants described improved relations: "Earlier government departments were not giving much attention to public demands. In fact, women were reluctant to visit government offices. But, now, there have been events such as the interface meeting, where government officials were present and people from the community had the opportunity to speak up. They expressed their demands directly to government officials. As a result, women have been encouraged to visit government offices, and a rapport has been built up between people and government officials."

A recent study conducted by World Vision Bangladesh (WVB), in collaboration with the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF-UTS) of the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Rajshahi (funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and linked with SHOMOTA project), revealed the effectiveness of using gender specific and transformative approaches so that others could replicate the best practices. For developing gender transformative framework, the study came up with eight recommendations—ensure strong staff capacity in gender and social inclusion, know the context and customise the strategies appropriate to that context, invest in community-based local leadership and ownership of gender-transformative change agendas, engage local leaders' support for gender-transformative social accountability, engage with men to promote gender and social inclusion, promote skill development for women and encourage women's collective action, encourage the practice of dialogue and accountability in order to create citizen engagement (women and men) with the state, and advocate to central government policymakers for structural changes to Water and Sanitation committees, with equal representation of women and men.

However, although women increased their engagement with government service providers and elected officials, the research found that these government officials were less responsive to women's voices than men's. We need to ensure that this changes, and that women and men have equal voice, accountability and empowerment through these development projects. Such gender transformative frameworks are now crucial in making achieving gender equality a central goal in interventions that also aim to ensure safe access to water.


Bipasha Dutta is national coordinator, Strategy, Innovation and Knowledge Management at World Vision Bangladesh.


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