Gender perspectives on water and food security


Remarks by Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women at the Closing Plenary Session of the 2012 World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, 31 August 2012.

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Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning,

It is a great pleasure for UN Women to be here and attend this most significant event on something that sustains life for all and that is so critical to all, and particularly to women - water.

As UN Women, I would to thank the Stockholm International Water Institute for inviting us and, more importantly, for making sure that this session, which brings this Week to a conclusion, includes a gender perspective. Because women are so intrinsically involved and affected by water and food security, I applaud the fact that much of the Conference was dedicated to exploring and establishing the symbiosis between gender equality and women's empowerment, water security and food security.

I had the privilege of participating in panels and discussions and hearing practitioners from the ground speak on these issues, bring to life actual experiences, and report good practices and lessons learnt in making that connection.

Our meeting this week in Stockholm and our rich debates are taking place against the backdrop of severe droughts around the world. From the worst drought in 56 years in the Midwest of the United States, to the Karnataka's drought in India, to the protracted drought in the Sahel region of West Africa, we have seen the very concrete consequences of the nexus between lack of water and food security.

We have also seen how, in our globalized world, something that happens in one corner of the world affects us all. The impact of the draught in the Midwest has already resulted in higher prices for corn and soybeans, two of the most important food crops worldwide. In the Sahel, 18.7 million people are facing food insecurity and more than 1 million children under the age of five are at risk of severe acute malnutrition. And women in this region carry the burden of feeding their families and of caring for the sick and the starving.

These events are a stark reminder of how the environmental dimension has direct economic and social consequences. They remind us of the critical linkages between these three dimensions and of the strong connection between water scarcity or availability, affordability and quality, and food security.

Today, I would like to highlight the importance of the gender perspective in looking at these connections. Women and girls - and the way they are impacted by access to water, or lack of it - constitute a large part of the picture, and most importantly a large part of the solution, in the nexus between water and food security. They are disproportionately impacted by the burden of food and water use and collection and production. At the same time, they are both the beneficiaries and enablers of food- and water-secure future.

I recently returned from the Rio+20 Conference, where, each in their own right, gender equality and women's empowerment, water security and sustainable water management, and food security and agricultural development were identified as priorities for our sustainable future and for sustainable development.

The Rio+20 outcome document clearly stresses the commitment of the international community ‘to the progressive realization of access to safe and affordable drinking water and basic sanitation for all, as necessary for poverty eradication, women's empowerment and protection of human health.

The outcome document also reaffirms the commitment of the international community to ensuring women's equal rights, access, participation and leadership in the economy, society and political decision-making. This is important because gender equality and women's empowerment is not only a social issue; it is also an economic and environmental issue. It stresses the need to ensure women's leadership and effective participation in sustainable development policies, programmes and decision-making at all levels. This includes of course water and food security.

Rio+20 further reiterated the importance of empowering rural women as critical agents for enhancing agricultural and rural development, food security and nutrition. Women's access to productive and economic resources is also emphasized, which, as we know, is essential in the context of access to water. This provides a strong basis for accelerated action in these areas.

This connection, which is so clearly made in the Rio+20 outcome, must be carried forward. As we approach the deadline for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, a new set of goals will be launched - the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.

The three priorities of gender equality and women's empowerment, water, and food security must be strongly interlinked in the goals that will cover each of these areas. In other words, the goal on water must have strong indicators and targets capturing the gender equality and women's empowerment dimension. This is also true of the goal on food security and, in fact, of all other Sustainable Development Goal.

More specifically, a goal on water should balance three important dimensions: efficiency on water use, pollution reduction and protection of ecosystems. The issue of sustainable production and consumption patterns, which has been discussed in this Conference and so vividly discussed in posters outside, must also be captured.

The gender equality and women's empowerment dimension must be reflected with gender targets and indicators on women's full participation in water governance, the alleviation of their work burden and the availability of gender-sensitive infrastructures and services. Statistical challenges related to the availability of sex-disaggregated data and gender sensitive indicators on water, rather than detracting us from using meaningful indicators, should be used as a trigger for political demand for the regular collection and analysis of important data, such as those collected by time use surveys.

In this effort, we count on your support and on the support of Sweden, as a leader on water and on gender equality and women's empowerment.

Water is used for a wide range of activities - all of which have a bearing on gender equality and women's empowerment. In the household, it is used for drinking, cleaning, conservation, storage and preparation of crops and food. For instance in developing countries, most women's survival strategies for lifting themselves and their families out of poverty through preparing and selling food takes place in the household.

Current estimates have shown that 70 percent of the world's water is needed for agriculture, 20 percent for industry, and 10 percent for personal use. Of course, these dimensions are interrelated as agricultural and industrial use of water also affects personal and household use. Because women depend more on non-irrigated and rainfed agriculture and because they are not equally represented in the industry sector, water scarcity disproportionately affects women and jeopardizes the achievement of their human rights. Water is a human right and women's rights are human rights.

The recently-issued 2012 MDG report points out that, while the MDG target on water has been largely met, 783 million people still remain without access to an improved source of drinking water. The gap between urban and rural areas remains wide, with the number of people in rural areas without an improved water source five times greater than in urban areas.

On reducing hunger, too, although strides have been made, about 800 million people remain hungry and we must prevent backsliding, which is likely due to food crises and increased food prices.

The lack of access to water often results in additional burden for women and girls. When water supplies are not readily accessible, it must be carried from its source and women and girls continue to bear the primary responsibility for water collection. The 2012 MDG Report highlights that, in Sub-Saharan Africa, 71 percent of the water collection burden falls on women and girls. This heavy burden is also the case in other parts of the world. Globally, it is estimated that women spend more than 200 million hours per day collecting water.

The linkages between water and food security are most significant in four ways:

Firstly, in gendered patterns of production: women dominate subsistence agriculture and unpaid water collection tasks while men dominate the cash crops. Women are involved both in irrigated and non-irrigated agriculture. However a larger number of women than men are engaged in rain-fed agriculture, which puts them in a more at risk of changing weather patterns. In addition, water rights are often related to land rights, which preclude women smallholder farmers from accessing irrigated water.

Secondly, in gender entitlement systems: looking at gender differences in the access and control over water and other productive resources, assets, services and opportunities for ensuring food and nutrition security. Due to pervasive gender norms and behaviors, women and girls have restricted access to productive resources, such as water, land, agricultural inputs, finance and credit, extension services and technology.

This, in turn, limits the efficiency of the agricultural sector to deliver food security for all. For instance, poor women, rural women, women in peri-urban areas, women farmers, have often been denied access to a water source due to social constructs, such as class, ethnicity and cultural constraints in the community. And it is often an issue of intersectional discrimination as well.

Thirdly, in the gendered division of labour, women and girls are the most overburdened with managing water, food and energy scarcity with their unpaid work, especially in developing countries. Entrenched gender roles mean that women and girls often bear the brunt of the associated hardships as growers and processors of food, responsible for the nutrition of their family, and water collectors.

They spend a disproportionate number of hours on labour-intensive, time-consuming and unpaid domestic tasks such as fetching water and firewood, washing clothes and dishes and preparing meals. This leads to their drudgery, reducing their opportunities to education, decent work, political engagement, and perpetuating the intergenerational transfer of poverty and disempowerment.

Finally, in gendered patterns of governance and leadership, which exclude women from policy making and management in the water and agricultural sectors. Although women carry most of the water related tasks, play a key role in food production, especially in subsistence farming and perform most of the unpaid care work, their participation in decision making processes on water and food management remains very low.

In 2012, women held less than 6 percent of all ministerial positions in the field of environment, natural resources and energy. This is why women's equal representation in governance mechanisms must be a target of a new SDG on water.

The combined impacts of the recent economic and financial crises, volatile energy and food prices, and climate change, have exacerbated water and food scarcity and their detrimental impact on women and girls. Creating a water and food secure world requires putting women and girls at the center of water and food related policies, actions and financing.

Empowering women and girls fuels thriving economies and inclusive societies, spurring productivity and growth. I would like to highlight four urgent actions related to water that must be taken to unleash women's potential and increase water and food security.

Firstly, we need to recognize that women are an important part of the solution. We need to recognize women as water resource managers, farmers and irrigators who contribute to ensuring sustainable food production and consumption, and safeguarding the environment and water resources within the households and communities. This must be done in laws, policies and through social awareness programmes in communities.

Secondly, we need to increase our efficiency in managing food and water resources, ensuring that women are empowered along the water and food supply chain, that their food production and water management roles are supported. This involves recognizing women as independent users of water and enabling women to access water rights, regardless of land ownership; supporting women's food production systems and value chains, including in adaptation and mitigation of climate change; and alleviating women and girls' unpaid work burden associated with water collection, food production and processing, and care work.

It has also been proven that improvements in infrastructure services— especially water and electricity and particularly for poor women in urban areas and rural women—can help free up women's time spent on domestic and care work. Electrification in rural South Africa, for instance, has increased women's labour force participation by about 9 percent. In Bangladesh, it has led to more leisure time for women and increased welfare. In Pakistan, putting water sources closer to the home was associated with increased time allocated to productive market work. In Tanzania, a survey found that girls' school attendance was 25 percent higher for girls from homes located 15 minutes or less from a water source than in homes one hour or more away.

Thirdly, we need to address the multifaceted gender discriminations in accessing and controlling productive resources, such as water and land, assets and services. Evidence suggests that investing in women-owned food and agricultural enterprises could narrow the resource gap and increase agricultural yields. If women were to have equal access to agriculture services, including irrigation services, it is estimated that agricultural yields would increase by 15 to 20 percent, reducing the number of hungry people by 100 to 150 million.

For this, women must be provided with technical training on water management, irrigation, rainwater harvesting, other small holder irrigation technologies and rain-fed agriculture. For instance, in South Africa, Lesotho and Uganda, the women ministers for water are implementing affirmative action programmes in the water sector to train women for water and sanitation related careers, including science and engineering. At local level, women have found their voices and have now been trained to locate water sources in the village, decide on the location of facilities and repair pumps.

Water supply services must cover the needs of the poorer sections of the population by initiating reforms that make water affordable to poor families in rural, urban and peri-urban areas. It is indeed common knowledge that the poorest, the majority of whom are women, have less access to safe drinking water and pay more for their water usage. Access to land, extension services, credit and other productive resources is also key.

Fourthly, we need to leverage the voice, participation and influence of women in managing the sustainable use of water resources and food, and sharing benefits equally. Women must be recognized as important decision-makers in water governance. In all countries and at all levels, women should be members of water management institutions, such as water user organizations.

This involves reducing membership fees and broadening the mandate of irrigation schemes to acknowledge and include multiple water users. This will not help ensuring that gender perspectives are mainstreamed in all governance and decision making processes related to policy development, implementation and monitoring, service delivery, and financing on water and agriculture. This will only work with strong accountability frameworks that ensure that women's agency in water and food governance is encouraged and facilitated.

Yesterday, the panel on global practices in promoting gender equality in the water sector emphasized the importance of an “ecosystem of policies - an enabling environment, strong institutions, targeted programmes and special measures, human resource capacity-building, functioning systems and sectoral policies, including on energy. Action must be taken at the global, regional, national level and all actors must be involved. Women's agency can be built through supporting women's organizations, self-help groups and women's cooperatives. This is a message not only to governments, but also to development partners and donors so that they prioritize it in their aid allocations.

It is crucial to address water security and their gender dimensions in national development plans, poverty reduction strategies, agricultural and rural development policies, and other development frameworks. Equitable water security needs to be a public policy priority. We need to catalyze alliance, knowledge sharing, commitment, innovations, actions and financing to address the nexus between food security and water from a gender perspective.

Women and girls are thirsty for available, accessible and affordable clean and safe water. We can no longer ruin their potential to become inspiring leaders, successful entrepreneurs or healthy mothers due to their heavy burden of fetching water.

While governments must prioritize women and girls in their national policies, the international community must prioritize gender equality and women's empowerment in the new development agenda. Development can neither be sustainable nor inclusive if it does not free women and girls from carrying heavy water buckets every day.

As we move towards the 2013 international year for water cooperation, we need to catalyze alliance, knowledge sharing, commitment, innovations, actions and financing to address issues related to affordability, accessibility and availability of safe and sufficient water for all at all levels. UN Women will be a strong advocate for leveraging women's voice and influence in water governance.

In conclusion, I would like to quote from the 2006 Human Development Report on water: “Throughout history water has confronted humanity with some of its greatest challenges.

Water is a source of life and a natural resource that sustains our environments and supports livelihoods - but it is also a source of risk and vulnerability. In the early 21st Century, prospects for human development are threatened by a deepening global water crisis. Debunking the myth that the crisis is the result of scarcity, this report argues that poverty, power and inequality are at the heart of the problem.

And that is why gender equality and women's empowerment must be the part of any blue revolution and any ‘second-generation' green revolution that we are seeking to launch.

Thank you.

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