The Silent Barrier: Women, Water and Sanitation

Access to sanitation and clean water is still a far-off dream for millions of women around the world.

It’s a glaring absence because women’s lives are intricately connected to water. In most of the world, they are tasked with gathering drinking water, growing household food, and caring for family members sickened by poor water.  Yet their voices are often missing in water and sanitation management discussions at local, country and international levels.

Women’s water burden is massive: collectively, more than 200 million hours a day are spent by women gathering water. This is time that is lost from school and work, but more is lost still from caring for family members sickened by water contaminated by the 2.5 billion people who do not have a toilet.

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Cultural and governance problems resulting in the silencing of women are incredibly hard to fix. The issue needs both grassroots and top-down action. In West Bengal, India, a water project run by a local university and international non-governmental organizations mandated that women make up 50 percent of the local water-sanitation committee, which oversaw the maintenance of the project. Follow-up visits helped to enforce this standard.  Financing organizations and country officials need to follow suit, but also need to address issues like girls’ education, which can help prepare them for a leadership role in a water-sanitation committee.

Schools are also a place to start cultural change. Without latrines in schools, girls must miss schooling and face potential harassment while they hunt for an appropriate spot to go. Without facilities, many drop out when they start menstruating. In Sri Lanka, NetWwater builds latrines in schools which have started to induce change in the open defecation culture: girls love the latrines and demand them at home.

The issue is vital: the clean water problem is becoming direr in the face of increasing water demand and climate change, while solving the “poop problem” faces barriers due to cultural taboos, norms and the sheer size of the population that goes without toilets.

Innovations, education and cultural shifts are all needed to bring water and sanitation to the billions who need it. There are exciting opportunities to bring women to the forefront of the discussion and hear their opinions on what they and their communities need.  To learn more about women and water and sanitation, we invite you to read the first issue of the journal, take a look at ours and our partners’ online resources and join the conversation about women and water at

Have you been involved in a water, sanitation or community development project that included women? Does learning more about women mean you will change your water project strategy? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


This post was written by Caroline D’Angelo, Editor-in-Chief of wH2O: The Journal of Gender & Water at the University of Pennsylvania and Staff Writer at Oikos and Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership. Follow wH2O on Twitter @wH2OJournal and Caroline @carolineoutside.

Posted by Kathrin on Tuesday, July 17th, 2012 at 4:07 pm and tagged , , .