Gender and Water

Women scientists and engineers, as well as women at the grassroots are essential participants in global water management and have important roles to play in its management, conservation and use. Women are often excluded from decision-making processes in the management of agricultural water and natural resources. Studies show that there tends to be little attention paid to social diversity and little differentiation among groups of water users. As a result, data and information on water use tends not to be disaggregated by gender or other social, ethnic or capacity grouping (see below).

Most of the world’s 1.2 billion poor people lack access to safe and reliable water, two thirds of them women. Diversion of water for industry, agriculture, and power generation reduces availability of water for domestic use, making it even more difficult for the poor to access water. Natural disasters, desertification, increasing stress on the land from a growing population, and climate change are also affecting the availability of water and the reliability of rainfall (IFAD, 2001 and 2007; Lambrou and Nelson, 2010; UNCTAD, 2011).

Worldwide, over 2.6 billion people still lack access to flush toilets or other forms of improved sanitation. Availability of clean water sources is improving in rural areas although it hasn’t yet caught up to 94% availability in urban areas. Increased toxicity of water and lack of systematic planning concerning its use reduce its availability and add stress to water systems (United Nations, 2012).

Lack of access to clean water leads to increasing health problems and difficulty in providing domestic needs. Unsafe water and sanitation conditions are responsible for 80 per cent of all sickness in the world: water-borne diseases kill 3.4 million people annually, mostly children. Diarrhea, malaria, schistosomiasis, arsenic poisoning, trachoma and hepatitis are all wide-ranging diseases which can be prevented with access to clean water and health-care information (Khosla and Pearl, 2003). Sanitation and hygiene tend to be women’s responsibility, and women and girls also walk for hours to fetch drinking water. This not only takes time away from other tasks (such as education), but also exposes them to possible violence and health hazards (IFAD, 2007).

In most cultures, women and men have different roles and responsibilities in the use and management of water. Women use water for production, consumption and domestic purposes, including cooking, cleaning, health and hygiene, and, if they have access to land, also for growing food. In rural areas, women and girls walk long distances to fetch water, often spending 4 to 5 hours per day carrying heavy containers and waiting in lines. The burden of fetching water (and firewood) inhibits their access to education, income generation, cultural and political involvement, and rest and recreation. A plenary panel held in conjunction with the World Summit on Sustainable Development stated that "women and children and vulnerable populations in general are bearing the brunt of the negative impacts of the lack of action on water and sanitation." The priorities of men with regard to water use mainly revolve around agriculture or livestock rearing
(UNCTAD, 2011; Both ENDS, 2006).

For example, in Nicaragua women are responsible for most tasks involving water, including cooking, cleaning, laundry, and caring for the sick, elderly and children. Female residents of poor, urban neighborhoods obtain water for their families from community faucets that may function for only a few hours a day and service from one to two hundred families in the city. Consequently, women become responsible for rationing water in the case of a drought or water shortage. Some women might also obtain water from trucks that deliver once or twice a week. These women carry multiple pails of water home every day, usually with only the help of their children. Many women also have income-generating jobs, either maintaining home businesses or working low-paying factory jobs that produce goods for first-world consumers, further complicating their ability to provide their family with clean water. Likewise, women in rural areas face harsher conditions. Approximately 72 percent of residents in those areas do not have regular access to clean water, and typically obtain water from community wells, irrigation ditches, or nearby rivers, lakes, and streams, often becoming exposed to disease from pollutants.1

Other water issues include degradation of ecosystems, polluted water, and contamination of groundwater and aquifers. Clean drinkable water is in increasingly short supply.

Privatisation is posing obstacles to women's use of water for household, community and productive responsibilities. Increases in water prices, cut-off of water supply due to unpaid bills; lack of accountability mechanisms for users; deterioration of water quality; and hygiene are some of the results.

It is also critical to ensure that more women scientists are involved as designers, experts and implementers of water projects. This involves both targeting women to be trained as water scientists and engineers, and making efforts to identify women candidates and employ them in leading positions in the water projects in IANAS countries.


  • Both ENDS. Effective gender mainstreaming in water management for sustainable livelihoods: From guidelines to practice. Amsterdam: Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture (CA) and Both ENDS (BE), 2006.
  • IFAD. Securing water for improved rural livelihoods: The multiple-uses system approach. Rome: IFAD, 2007.
  • IFAD. Rural Poverty Report 2001: The challenges of ending rural poverty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Khosla, Prabha and Rebecca Pearl. "Untapped Connections: Gender, Water and Poverty: Key Issues, Government Commitments and Actions for Sustainable Development." New York: WEDO. 2003.
  • Lambrou, Yianna and Sibyl Nelson. Farmers in a changing climate. Does gender matter? Food Security in Andhra Pradesh, India. Rome: FAO, 2010.
  • UNCTAD. Applying a Gender Lens to Science, Technology and Innovation. Geneva: UNCTAD, 2011.



  • Addressing water and poverty

    While women continue to be responsible for much of the water collection and management of food production for household consumption, their limited access militates against food and water security.

  • Mujer y agua potable: un análisis de sustentabilidad y gestión del recurso a partir del uso doméstico en el municipio de Tlaxcala

    En un contexto en el que se prevé una agudización de los conflictos por la escasez del agua, cobra relevancia el análisis del papel que asumen las mujeres en este escenario; la investigación se realizo en el municipio urbano del Estado de Tlaxcala México, considerando la localización espacial, el estrato socioeconómico y la escolaridad como factores determinantes para acceder al recurso agua potable, usarlo y gestionarlo a nivel de unidad familiar, La metodología considero mujeres urbanas, periurbanas y rurales del espacio mencionado; el resultado del muestreo indica la urgente necesidad de diseñar políticas hídricas incluyentes en las que las mujeres sean gestoras de relaciones de uso y cuidado sustentable del recurso en beneficio de las generaciones presentes y futuras.

  • For Her - It's the Big Issue: putting women at the centre of water supply, sanitation and hygiene

    The report describes how not only women, but also the community as a whole benefits from involving women in water supply and sanitation projects. It ends with key messages and recommendations.

    Available in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

  • Sidestream or Mainstream

    Research and practical experience from the Gender and Water Alliance (GWA) have demonstrated that effective, efficient and equitable management of the available water is only achieved when both women and men are involved in making decisions on how to best share, supply and protect water.

  • Why Gender Matters, A tutorial for water managers

    The tutorial deals with the general concepts in the different water sectors: drinking water, sanitation, agriculture and environment. It also gives reference to many resources: selected references, manuals, tools, resource centres and case studies.

  • Gender, Water and Sanitation: a Policy Brief

    This policy brief was developed by the Inter-agency Task Force on Gender and Water (GWTF), a sub-programme of both UN-Water and the Interagency Network on Women and Gender Equality (IANWGE) in support of the International Decade for Action, "Water for Life, " 2005-2015.

  • Does Increased Water Access Empower Women?

    In this publication the extent to which women have benefited from increased water access is examined. It is argued that while gender equality is crucial for the sustainability of water programmes, its advancement through water programmes has been limited.

    The author calls for more impact studies and suggests the use of empowering participatory approaches.




  • Gender and Water: International Decade for Action – Water for Life 2005-2015

    The importance of involving both women and men in the management of water and sanitation and access-related questions has been recognized at the global level, starting from the 1977 United Nations Water Conference at Mar del Plata, the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade (1981-90) and the International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin (January 1992), which explicitly recognizes the central role of women in the provision, management and safeguarding of water.

  • UN Taskforce on Gender and Water

    The Task Force’s objectives are to promote gender mainstreaming in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) related to water and sanitation and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI) at the global, regional, national, local and utility levels.

  • Water and Sanitation Programme, Gender and Water in Sanitation, 2010.

    WSP is a multi-donor partnership created in 1978 and administered by the World Bank to support poor people in obtaining affordable, safe, and sustainable access to water and sanitation services. WSP provides technical assistance, facilitates knowledge exchange, and promotes evidence-based advancements in sector dialogue.

  • UNDP Gender and Water

    UNDP advocates the principle that policies, programmes and projects that address gender inequalities will ensure more equitable water resources management and human development opportunities for both women and men. Productive versus domestic use of water, women’s and men’s access to and control over water and land, credit and extension services as well as participation in water governance are examples of issues that need to be addressed.


  • Red latinoamericana de desarrollo de capacidades para la gestión integrada del agua

    Latin American Water Education Training Network (LA-WETnet)
LA-WETnet is a regional network of capacity building institutions and UN agencies with the common objective to enhance human resources development for IWRM and improve access to water and sanitation for all in Latin America.

  • REDICA - Red Centroamericana de Instituciones de Ingeniería

    Es un mecanismo para coadyuvar en el desarrollo y mejoramiento de la enseñanza y la practica de la ingeniería y arquitectura en Centroamérica.

  • Mujeres del Agua

    Women and water organization based in Murcia, Spain. Site under construction.

  • Gender and Water Alliance (Spanish / Portuguese)

    GWA is a global network dedicated to mainstream gender in water resoures management. It is registered as an Association under Dutch law and has over 2100 members in more than 125 countries worldwide. Its membership is diverse and represents a wide range of capacities and expertise across all water sectors as well as from different stakeholder groups including government, grassroots organisations, NGOs, universities and research institutes, international agencies and individual consultants.


  • Expert Group Meeting Report: Gender-disaggregated Data on Water and Sanitation

    Report of the Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on "Gender-disaggregated Data on Water and Sanitation", in New York, USA, on 2-3-December 2008. The meeting was jointly convened by UNW-DPC and UNDESA . More than 20 experts attended the meeting representing national ministries and other institutions from Chile, Sri Lanka, India, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Mexico and Suriname, and several international organizations. The goals of the meeting were to take stock of gender-disaggregated data on water and sanitation at global and regional levels, to identify obstacles to gender-disaggregated data capacity and collection and to identify data needs and priorities. Finally, recommendations were made on policies, practices and priorities to improve the state of gender-disaggregated data on water and sanitation.


*Document Updated: December 2013