There is no doubt that living in water insecurity is an inherently gendered experience. WASH literature confirms that the unavailability of safe water disproportionately disadvantages women, highlighting the need for a gender-sensitive approach in rural water provision. Evidence from Maji communities affirms this pattern while highlighting the significant improvements our work creates in women’s lives.
The gendered division of labor assigns water collection to women in rural and peri-urban societies across the globe. Research suggests that in 8 out of 10 households with water off-premises, women and girls are primarily responsible to fetch water for household needs. That is, millions of women spending 200 million hours each day on this arduous task. Inevitably, living in water insecurity is a gendered experience entailing unique challenges for women. Before diving into what these challenges are, it is worthwhile to understand what water insecurity is.
What is water insecurity?
Water insecurity is the unavailability of safe water acquired through culturally acceptable means. Previously, It was understood along three key dimensions: availability, access and usage. Water availability referred to how much water is physically available in the environment and how it is distributed to people. Access is a demand-side dimension and referred to the control of water as a commodity, for example, whether the water source is close to the home and household members are able to source or procure enough water for their needs. Water usage included issues of need, knowledge, and practice of water safety behaviors. The Millennium Development Goals reflected a similar approach to water provision. However, the Sustainable Development Agenda marked a departure from this simplistic approach as it also includes reliability, affordability, non-discrimination, quality, and quantity along with access to a water service to define water security.
Needless to say, the lack of any or all of these attributes is what makes a water insecure lifeworld, shaping everyday reality for millions around the globe. A reality that is particularly harsh for adult women and girls.
Gendered Consequences of Water Insecurity:
Existing literature presents overwhelming evidence that women and girls are disproportionately disadvantaged by scarcity of water. The nature of these gendered consequences has been characterized as psycho-social, physical and economic in WASH literature.
Intimate partner violence triggered by insufficient water is the most prominent physical consequence faced by women. In order to avoid such situations, women are willing to give the collected water ratios to their men, making difficult trade-offs and forgoing personal water use entirely. Naturally, this negatively impacts personal hygiene needs, giving rise to serious health challenges.
More importantly, long water walks at odd times of the day and even night, expose women to the risk of sexual violence. To illustrate this with an example, a 16-year-old girl from Uganda reports being routinely harassed by boys and men along the way. They threaten her with extreme violence, rape and even death. Her friends face the same threat, one of whom is pregnant after an attack. More evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa affirms community women’s heightened vulnerability on routine water walks: “traveling long distances, exacerbated by the predictability of community women’s water-fetching routines, afforded assailants the opportunity to attack women who were isolated, alone, and ultimately overtly vulnerable”. This is in addition to the risk of animal attacks and injuries while maneuvering difficult landscape along the way to fetch water.
Finally, evidence from Western Kenya reveals that women continue to be held responsible for water collection, even in late pregnancy and shortly after delivery. This leads respondents to create a direct link between water insecurity and birth outcomes such as early delivery, still birth and miscarriage. In addition, already malnutritioned female bodies do not respond well to the caloric expenditure required by water acquisition leading to spine deformities and early onset of arthritic diseases.
The economic consequences of women’s lack of access to a basic necessity such as water is understood as an example of structural violence. Simply put, the conditions that require women to walk for hours to secure water when they could be participating in economically rewarding activities are woven into the social, economic, and political fabric of societies. The same conditions create an inescapable poverty trap, hindering their upward social mobility through education or economic independence. Time spent on water collection is in fact time taken away from school hours. Evidence from Ghana and Tanzania shows that a 15-minute reduction in water collection time leads to a direct increase in girls’ school attendance from 8-12%. Thus, improved water access translates to better education and upward mobility for women and girls while the lack thereof hinders proper education and female employment.
A geo-spatial clustering study conducted in rural Uganda revealed that residing in a water insecurity hotspot is associated with 70% greater risk for probable depression among women, but not among men. The relatively higher proportion of women experiencing distress can be attributed to women’s inability to complete their roles within the home and community i.e. maintain household hygiene or provide water as a gesture of hospitality. In the local context, this leads to social shaming, worry and a negative self-concept:
“You may get visitors asking for drinking water, you will tell them you don’t have it and they will ask themselves what kind of life you lead if you do not even have drinking water” (GA Migori, Western Kenya)
In other contexts, women reported becoming frustrated when forced to wait for water in long queues, resulting in inter-personal conflict and violence. This is in addition to the risk of sexual violence as well as the stress associated with it. Finally, studies revealed that the mental burden of planning and organizing where, when and how to acquire water kept women awake at night, especially during droughts and dry seasons.
Evidence from Maji Communities:
Recently, we rolled out baseline surveys in three communities of Machakos County, Kenya. The studies are designed with a gender-sensitive lens to extract baseline figures outlining current socio-economic and health challenges that are triggered by water poverty. Importantly, our findings confirm the gendered impact of water insecurity presented in existing literature. The disparity in the experiences of men and women due to water insecurity, is reflected in their responses to the survey questions:
Women feel significantly more unsafe when fetching water than men (F 76.2% vs M 45.4%, aggregated unsafe/ very unsafe)
Women find it much more difficult to access the current water sources compared to men (very difficult F 67% vs M 42%)
Mothers believe their children are missing many more school hours due to waterborne diseases than men (Mothers 47.6% vs Fathers 33%)
Women believe that the frequency of family members are falling ill as result of waterborne diseases is much higher (F 47.6% vs M 33%).
Understanding the importance of centralized water access to households, we situate our kiosks in the heart of each community. This ensures the safety of the water fetchers and reduces physical and psycho-social stress on women. We respect the WHO guideline stating collection from an improved water source to be under 30-minutes for a roundtrip. Furthermore, we aspire to go over and beyond to improve access, providing safe water at the doorstep of each family’s home. In the three communities surveyed, the average time spent per day per trip is 57 minutes and water is fetched twice a day. The Maji kiosks that will soon be operational in these communities will save women almost two hours per day per trip, allowing for extra rest and higher engagement in productive activities. Tellingly, post-intervention surveys conducted at already operational sites have revealed the burden of waterborne illnesses drop from 11% to 0%. This is not only significant reduction in health expenditure, but also relieving the caring burden and associated psychological pressure borne solely by women.
Living in water insecurity is an inherently gendered experience that necessitates all efforts towards rural water provision, be designed with a gender-sensitive perspective. Addressing gendered experiences is both women’s rights and an investment in the sustainability and acceptability of a water solution.