Remarks by John Hendra at a side event on Women and Water: Multipliers of Development

Remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Policy and Programme John Hendra, at a side event on Women and Water: Multipliers of Development, New York, 11 March 2014


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I’m very pleased to be here to discuss the interlinkage between gender equality, women’s empowerment and water, and I would like to thank the Permanent Missions of Switzerland, South Africa and Mexico for co-convening this side event.

At this year’s CSW we are reflecting on the challenges and achievements of the MDGs for women and girls. As we know, the MDG target of halving the proportion of people with sustainable access to safe drinking water has been achieved, well ahead of the deadline. Yet nearly 800 million people still lack access to an improved water source and 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation.

What’s more, the demand for water is projected to increase significantly over the next 40 years and with this rising pressure on water resources comes a real risk that inequalities in access to water and sanitation will rise as well. Already one in three people live in a country with moderate to high water stress. Ensuring universal access to water and sanitation has never been more important. It has never been more imperative for achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment.

As we’ve heard, women bear a disproportionate burden of providing water, energy and food to the “bottom billions”. According to WHO and UNICEF,  women and girls represent 75 per cent of household water collectors. In sub-Saharan Africa, women collectively spend about 40 billion hours a year fetching water – equivalent to a year’s labour for the entire workforce of France.

As others have said, sourcing and collecting water is a major part of women’s unpaid care work burden, in particular for the poorest women, and undermines women’s ability to engage in paid employment and other income-generating activities.

Having full access to water and sanitation is not only an important right and State  duty, as acknowledged in international human rights commitments, and as so clearly highlighted by Patricia, it’s also smart economics. Because access to adequate sanitation brings multiple benefits, including improved health outcomes, increased school attendance, and greater dignity and safety for women. The economic impacts of not investing in sanitation and access to water are significant. For example, lack of hygiene facilities and safe toilets in schools limits girls and women’s participation in education and employment. A Tanzanian study showed that reducing the distance to a water source from 30 to 15 minutes increased girl’s school attendance by 12 per cent  –- that’s a very significant increase. Imagine how much attendance would increase if it’s reduced from 30 to 5 minutes!

At UN Women we have been looking at the nexus between water, energy, and food security, as well as the nexus between water and jobs, both of which have a very direct bearing on gender equality and women’s empowerment. UN Women and the International Labour Organization (ILO) are partnering to promote gender mainstreaming in the water supply chain, and to enhance women’s contribution to improving the water supply network. This involves addressing informality, unpaid work, and job creation in water supply in a comprehensive way. It’s based on experiences captured in three country case studies on gender, access to water, and promotion of decent work in Panama, the Philippines and Senegal.

In this regard, I’d like to highlight the experience and lessons learned in the Philippines, in a case study from the Mindanao province, one of 36 municipalities in a programme jointly implemented by the Philippines  Government and the UN. The study showed that the availability of water changed women’s lives in terms of food security, income generation, social cohesion and community welfare.

According to the women interviewed, the full provision of water enables them to engage in income-generating activities and to earn more than the amount they receive from the Government’s conditional cash transfer programme, which gives households living below the poverty line, cash grants every two months, ranging from USD $11 to $33.

The Philippines case study has also shown that women can be effective water resource managers. They’re involved in the operation and management of the water system through water service associations where they hold leadership positions. Men in the community have recognized that women’s leadership has led to an increase in the collection of water fees, leading to an upgrade of the water service association into an efficient water service provider with urgent attention being given to maintenance problems. Consumers also report that women officials of the water boards are more efficient, able to cultivate good interpersonal relations and bring more practical family-oriented concerns to the table. In short, much greater women’s involvement in water resource management in Mindano has resulted in greater efficiency, effectiveness, sustainability and equity of the service provided and has contributed to greater community resilience.

As this example shows, women and men should be equal partners in all areas of water governance and water resource management. When women are more equally engaged, they, their families, and communities benefit. Yet in 2012, women held less than 6 per cent of all positions in the field of environment, natural resources and energy. This needs to change.

At UN Women we’re very pleased to see both gender equality and women’s empowerment, and water and sanitation, emerging as key priority areas to be addressed in the post-2015 agenda.  This gives us a real opportunity to substantively address multiple inequalities faced by women and girls. In particular, we welcome the strong and growing call for a dedicated goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment, as well as gender mainstreaming across the framework, and any goals and targets that may be developed. As the discussions now turn to a focus on setting targets and identifying indicators, it will be very important to include specific targets and indicators on recognizing, reducing and redistributing unpaid care and domestic work, and ensuring women’s sustainable access to water and sanitation.

There’s also strong support for a dedicated goal on water and sanitation. Such a goal must include gender-sensitive indicators, such as the average weekly time spent in water collection by women and men, boys and girls, and the availability of sanitation in households and in schools, in order to effectively promote achievement of gender equality and women’s empowerment, in particular for the poorest and most vulnerable women.

As we know from experience, and as we’re discussing all this week, gender equality and women’s empowerment are a prerequisite for achieving all development goals. As we accelerate efforts to achieve the MDGs, and as Member States formulate the new development agenda, we count on your support to ensure that gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment are at the heart of our efforts to achieve sustainable development, peace and security, and human rights for all.

Thank you.