Women and Water: The Forgotten Glass Ceiling

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Water is the most common substance on earth, covering over 70% of the earth’s surface. Though there are about 1.4 thousand million cubic kilometers of water on earth, only 3% of the earth’s water is fresh. Less than 1% of the earth’s freshwater is readily accessible for direct human use. 

On an average, a person takes in about 60,600 liters of water in his or her lifetime, but the largest single use of water is by industry. Scarcity of usable water has assumed alarming proportions due to pollution, misuse, and due to the fact that the cost of developing new supplies is prohibitive.

Women and water

Millions of women and children spend several hours a day collecting water from distant, often polluted sources. According to Water Advocates, a Washington DC based group, women in poor communities across Asia, Africa, and South America typically walk an average of 3 miles a day to fetch water for their households, often from contaminated sources such as rivers, unprotected springs, and shallow wells, and yet women play an important role in water management. They are most often the collectors, users and managers of water in the household as well as farmers of irrigated and rainfed crops. Because of these roles, women have considerable knowledge about water resources, including quality and reliability, restrictions and acceptable storage methods, and are key to the success of water resources development and irrigation policies and programmes.

A study by the International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC) of community water and sanitation projects in 88 communities found that projects designed and run with the full participation of women are more sustainable and effective than those that do not. This supports an earlier World Bank study that found that women’s participation was strongly associated with water and sanitation project effectiveness.

Evidence shows that women are responsible for half of the world’s food production (as opposed to cash crops) and in most developing countries, rural women produce between 60-80 percent of the food. Women also have an important role in establishing sustainable use of resources in small-scale fishing communities, and their knowledge is valuable for managing and protecting watersheds and wetlands.


According to FAO, “Yet, the incorporation of gender issues in the planning, design and implementation of irrigation programmes has been far more limited despite the number of studies documenting the failure of irrigation schemes due to mistaken assumptions regarding the intra-household division of labour and organization of production. In an irrigation scheme in northern Cameroon, for instance, one-third of the scheme's development area remained uncultivated due to intra-household labour conflicts.”


According to the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, “Gender concerns are commonly assumed to be automatically incorporated within participatory community-based approaches (towards water management), although …this is not necessarily the case.”


The Forgotten Glass Ceiling

According to sustainable water experts John Sauer and Andra Tamburro, women and girls in developing countries bear significant economic, physical and health burdens to provide water for their families on a daily basis -- "this is the forgotten glass ceiling." [Women and Water: A Forgotten Glass Ceiling]


Commitments made by the International Community

Agenda 21, the main outcome of the Rio Earth Summit held in 1992, includes a chapter on Global Action for Women towards Sustainable and Equitable Development.


The same year, the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development includes women in one of its four principles: "Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water".


The Programme of Action from the UN International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994), has a chapter dedicated to Gender equality, equity and empowerment of women.


In 1995, during the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, China), governments committed themselves in the Beijing Declaration to: "promote knowledge of and sponsor research on the role of women, particularly rural and indigenous women, in irrigation, watershed management, sanitation, focusing particularly on indigenous women's knowledge and experience."


At the Second World Water Forum in The Hague (2000) it was recognized that, in addition to being prime users of “domestic water”, women used water in their key role in food production and that women and children are most vulnerable to water-related disasters. The forum concluded that women’s involvement would improve governance. Since women bear the brunt of the burden of poor management, they could be empowered through greater and more effective participation.


During the International Conference on Freshwater held in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001, gender was given a prominent place in the Ministerial Declaration: "Both men and women should be involved and have an equal voice in managing the sustainable use of water resources and sharing of benefits. The role of women in water-related areas needs to be strengthened"


The Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development (2002) has issued several main commitments related to women in its Political Declaration. Among them to "Promote women’s equal access to and full participation, on the basis of equality with men, in decision-making at all levels, mainstreaming gender perspectives in all policies and strategies…’


Further emphasis on equality (including gender equality) was given in the statement of the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto in 2003. The Ministerial Declaration stated, “In managing water we should ensure good governance with a stronger focus on household and neighbourhood community-based approaches by addressing equity in sharing benefits, with due regard to pro-poor and gender perspectives in water policies. We should further promote the participation of all stakeholders and ensure transparency and accountability in all actions.”


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See also


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