Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

How countries can improve women’s access to water

Bhuvan Bhatnagar
Lead Water and Sanitation Specialist, World Bank Group\'s Water Global Practice
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Because of water’s multidimensional role in economic development and poverty reduction, addressing the constraints that women and girls face in accessing and managing water is essential for achieving impact.

Challenges of gender inequality in water include:​

  • Women are disproportionately underrepresented in water sector decision making at many levels.
  • Women and girls are often charged with domestic water collection, disadvantaging other spheres of life, such as education.
  • Men benefit disproportionally from economic opportunities generated by the capital-intensive nature of water development and management.
  • Women and girls have specific sanitation needs, both for managing menstruation and for protection against gender-based violence.

​Gender-inclusive water programs need to reflect the integral roles of women and girls as providers, users, and managers of water. The Water Global Practice of the World Bank is contributing to the effort to reduce gender inequities by focusing on three major responses:

Increase the institutional space for gender.

The government of Papua New Guinea with the partnership of the World Bank developed and adopted a gender-informed national WASH policy that addresses gender dimensions of access, voice, and gender-based violence. The Water Global Practice is further undertaking a global policy review to determine if countries have gender-informed water policies and strategies, and supporting the development of gender action plans in selected countries.

Promote equal economic opportunities in the water sector.

Peru’s Sierra Irrigation Project removed a land title requirement for Water User Organization (WUO) membership and irrigation access, set aside a portion of irrigated land for women, and raised awareness of women’s role in irrigation management, resulting in increased leadership and participation by women in the WUO.

Yemen’s Irrigation Improvement Project used participatory irrigation management to incorporate women participation in the project design and implementation processes, resulting in 66 percent of women benefitting significantly from the increased agriculture income, acquiring new assets, and making new investments at the household level.

Vietnam’s Red River Delta Water and Sanitation Project incorporated training for women on financial literacy, management, and business development training, and provided access to credit through rotating funds and credit cooperatives.

Increase capacity of the state and service providers to address gender and water.

Kenya’s new gender action plans; reform of access policies such as social connections and adoption of alternatives to land title requirements for water and sewer connections; increase in women’s opportunities for paid work; and enhanced women’s visibility in utility management.

At a regional level, platforms like the Africa Minister’s Council on Water (AMCOW) provide an entry point for countries to learn from one another. Similarly, the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Program established a gender action plan, guidelines, and built capacity of riparian government staff for joint monitoring using gender-sensitive indicators for transboundary water management.

Finally, decentralization of the state and formation of local governments offer a space to increase the capacity of the state to address the linkage between gender and water.  As India has shown, ensuring that local councils have a dedicated portion of seats for women councilors has enabled women to leverage their voice into service delivery decisions.  States such as Kerala and West Bengal have seen this voice reflected in greater demand for water services. In Bangladesh, this has translated into greater demand for sanitation services.  At the same time, water service delivery innovations can also strengthen the voice of women in state management.  Again, in India, evidence has shown that community based service delivery mechanisms, the linkage of service delivery with the system of the state, and mechanisms of voice that make a state inclusive are therefore critical to ensuring that the state is able and can be held accountable to address the policy nexus defined by gender and water.

This article first appeared on the World Bank’s The Water Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Bhuvan Bhatnagar is the Lead Water and Sanitation Specialist in the World Bank Group’s Water Global Practice. Rosemary Rop is a Water & Sanitation Specialist in the World Bank Group’s Water Global Practice.

Image: People collect water at a camp for displaced people at M’poko International Airport in Bangui. REUTERS/Camille Lepage 
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