“We must leverage women's voice and influence in water governance”— Åsa Regnér

Remarks by Åsa Regnér, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, at the World Water Week celebration in Stockholm on 27 August


I thank the World Water Week and Prizes as well as the Stockholm International Water Institute for their invitation to this very important event.

Huge thanks to our host, the Mayor of Stockholm.

Sincere thanks to our esteemed Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Professors Bruce Rittmann and Mark van Loosdrecht and Carin Jämtin, Director General, Swedish international Development Cooperation Agency, for their inspiring and thought-provoking interventions in this opening segment of the World Water Week.

The World Water Week is a unique forum for the exchange of views, experiences and practices and for promoting new thinking and positive action toward water-related challenges and their impact on the world’s environment, health, climate, economic and poverty reduction agendas. Our reflections and policy recommendations to tackle such challenges will always be incomplete if women, half of the world potential, is left behind.

And this is exactly what I want to focus my presentation on: highlighting women’s critical role on sustainable management of water resources, and its impact on the sustainability of the environment and the society; I will also reflect on how equitable access to water is an empowering factor for women that contributes to addressing the root causes of poverty and inequality.

A woman carrying water on her head or on her hips with the scorching sun in the background is the iconic image of development unmet. 

This is the situation, for example, of women of the Turkana county, Kenya, where they have to walk long miles every day to fetch water. Their livelihoods are impacted too, as the communities relied heavily on livestock. But this is not just a local situation in any given country. Just in sub-Saharan Africa estimates indicate that women and girls spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water, equivalent to a year’s worth of labour by the entire workforce in France.

To date, there are more than 2.1 billion people lacking access to safely managed drinking water, and 4.5 billion lacking safely managed sanitation services. Chronic lack of access to water has been exacerbated by climate change, environmental degradation, and political and armed conflicts.

Gender norms and roles continue to dictate that women and girls are the primary water carriers for their families. In over 80 per cent of households where water has to be fetched, women and girls do the fetching. When safe drinking water is not available on household premises, the burden of water collection and treatment falls largely on the shoulders of women and girls.

The lack of safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities at home may expose them to illness, harassment and violence—hampering their ability attend school, earn an income and move around freely. Where household members fall sick due to water-borne illnesses, it is mainly women and girls who provide the much-needed care.

Where rural water sources are distant, women and girls may walk up to two hours to fetch water. Where urban water is from shared standpipes, they may wait in line for over an hour. Water-related ‘time poverty’ translates to lost income for women and lost schooling for girls.

The farther the source of water, the less water the household uses and the more child health is likely to suffer. Diarrhea from inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene claims the lives of 1,000 children a day, and 140 million people are exposed to high levels of arsenic in their water.

All this fetching and carrying, usually from a young age, causes cumulative wear-and-tear to the neck, spine, back and knees. In effect, a woman’s body becomes part of the water-delivery infrastructure, doing the work of pipes. In addition, high levels of mental stress have been reported when water rights are insecure. 

For most poor women, a source of clean and affordable domestic water and safe and private sanitation facilities that can be reliably accessed are key elements of sustainable development.

This means that we must not only achieve SDG 6 on safe water and sanitation but multiple other linked SDGs: 

  • SDGs 1 and 8, because investments in water and sanitation can free up women’s time and facilitate their access to a wider range of employment opportunities, potentially contributing to the achievement of decent work and poverty eradication
  • SDG 3, since safe water, sanitation and hygiene is an essential ingredient for progress on reducing maternal and child mortality and deaths from WASH-related diseases, and preventing non-communicable diseases and mental health conditions by reducing the need to walk long distances carrying heavy loads of water
  • SDG 4, as reducing the time spent on water collection and improving school sanitation is also important for achieving quality education and effective learning outcomes among girls
  • SDG 11, given that WASH is an essential part of inclusive urbanization and slum up-grading and women’s participation in the design and implementation of WASH services and infrastructure is key

Linking the implementation of SDGs 5 and 6 is especially critical if we are to respond to the gendered WASH crisis worldwide:

  • SDG target 5.1 Ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls requires water and sanitation efforts to deliberately address gender power imbalances, including in water governance institutions. It means addressing the discrimination that women and girls face because of inaccessible, unsafe or inadequately equipped WASH facilities.
  • SDG target 5.2 Eliminating violence against women and girls must be considered in all WASH interventions and facilities must be designed in ways that protect their safety and prevent violence and harassment.
  • SDG target 5.4 Recognizing unpaid care and domestic work means that WASH interventions need to reduce the time women and girls spend on water collection, treatment and disposal as well as on caring for family.
  • SDG target 5.5 Full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership (calls for strengthening women’s participation in WASH management and decision-making
  • SDG target 5.6 Access to sexual and reproductive health includes menstrual hygiene management and sanitary childbirth, which require safely managed WASH.
  • SDG target 5.a Equal rights to economic resources includes equal access to water as an economic good.

UN Women’s action

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.

Our programme work in the area include, for example, our action in the southern villages of Kyrgyzstan, where access to safe drinking water and cultivable land are key issues. UN Women, supported by the Government of Finland, has trained youth to become peer educators, who are raising awareness about gender equality in access to water and sanitation and effective use of scarce natural resources. We are proud that to date, some 2000 young people have gained advocacy skills on gender equality and promotion of equal access to water resources. The project has worked towards securing livelihoods for vulnerable women, men and children through efficient use of water and equitable community governance of water resources. As a result of these local initiatives, over 20,000 households have improved access to safe drinking water.

Also, in villages near Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, where water shortage is a perennial problem, women and girls walk for hours every to fetch water for their families, for cooking, and for their cattle to drink. After the earthquake, water sources began to dry up and solutions urgently needed to be found. In response, the UN Women-supported women’s group SAATHI organized leadership training to enable women, particularly young women, to take part in the quest for solutions to the lack of water. They organized their communities to fundraise and take out small loans for materials to channel water, construct communal taps and water storage, reuse water for irrigation, and build private spaces for bathing. Participants agree that nobody, especially not women and school-going children, should have to walk for hours for water. And that based on these initial efforts, they have the knowledge and capacity to extend their reach to yet more households and communities.

In pastoral communities of Kenya, women bear the brunt of drought; walking miles and queuing at water points has become a thrice daily chore for many women who fetch water for their families and goats and sheep that are too weak to walk. 2.7 million people are affected by the on-going drought in the Horn of Africa. Several consecutive years of poor rains have exhausted people’s coping capacities, caused severe food insecurity, and intensifying conflicts over water and pasture are driving people out of the region. The Kenyan Government declared the drought a national disaster. UN Women is working with Kenya’s National Drought Management Authority to ensure that all interventions to address the drought take into considerations the unique situations of women and children. UN Women has trained more than 60 staff working with the National Drought Management Authority to identify and address gender concerns during the drought response and recovery phases and to ensure that the on-going humanitarian and resilience building programmes are gender-responsive.

Policy recommendations

To sum up, what is needed to make water and sanitation systems truly gender-responsive?

Strengthening meaningful participation

Making WASH gender-responsive means women and girls – including from marginalized peri-urban and urban as well as remote and rural areas – are taking an active part in decision-making. This could be, for example, in community water committees or consultations on infrastructure and service planning and development.

Transforming infrastructure and service delivery for gender equality

Continuous piped water at the household level has the greatest health benefits and reduces women’s and girls’ burden of unpaid care and domestic work. Extending the reach of water service delivery to underserved communities is hence an important priority. Continuous piped water access may not be technologically and financially viable in dispersed rural communities, so decentralized solutions need to be put in place.

Multiple-use systems that that provide safe water for drinking, irrigation for small plots, and water supply for a few cattle or goats are more likely to respond to the needs of rural women.

Also critical for women and girls are safely managed sanitation facilities in private households, but also in public spaces – schools, transportation hubs, publicly accessible government offices, health clinics, markets, and workplaces.

Improving data on gender and WASH

The lack of gender-specific indicators and disaggregated WASH data is an important concern for monitoring progress on the SDGs. Indicator 6.1.1 for monitoring progress towards target 6.1 on safe drinking water for all is not disaggregated by sex. Target 6.2 does explicitly recognize that women and girls have specific sanitation and hygiene needs. However, indicator 6.2.1 does not currently track whether efforts to expand access to safely managed sanitation respond to those needs by disaggregating by sex. If progress towards safe water and sanitation is to be monitored for all, more and better sex-disaggregated data and gender statistics are needed.

As a final note I would like to emphasize the importance of designing and financing the infrastructure service chain for safe drinking water and for safe sanitation and hygiene to contribute towards the implementation of multiple SDGs. We urge to further catalyze our commitments, innovations, actions and financing so to ensure bold progress related to affordability, accessibility and availability of safe and sufficient water for women and girls everywhere. To ensure bold progress towards this end, we must leverage women's voice and influence in water governance. We count on your support and leadership!!

I thank you!!