Water is not a gender neutral resource. We’ve already seen that it’s often considered to be feminine when looking through a symbolic lens but if we look to how water is seen through a gendered lens, we see that it reflects and reinforces inequality.
In terms of daily interaction with water and management of water, the experiences of men and women are very different. This is more so in less developed countries where water is interacted with more directly than in more developed countries, where you turn on a tap and don’t need to think about it.
Talking about The Rising Tide, a report from 2017 looking at gender and water, Caren Grown from the World Bank said:
“(The report shows us that) water is an arena where gender relations play out in ways that often mirror inequalities between the sexes. And it examines how norms and practices related to water often exacerbate ingrained gender and other hierarchies.”
In parts of the world where water is not available on tap, the day to day collection of water falls predominantly to women and so does the use of water. For example, it is used in cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and washing children. The many ways women use water throughout their lives is expressed in detail in Table 3.3 in The Rising Tide, page 30. This table goes through the stages of live from prenatal through to the elderly phase of women’s life and considers changing needs. For example, there is increased neonatal mortality in water stressed areas and the decreased likelihood of the baby being washed means they have increased susceptibility to diseases with lifelong implications. As well as the direct health impacts of drinking unclean water during pregnancy, women in some parts of the world are putting their bodies under immense strain as the collect water whilst carrying a child. This leads to other health issues such as back problems.
For men, the main use for domestic water is personal hygiene so inevitably, they have different perspectives. This is important because when it comes to water management on a larger scale, it is often a male dominated world. It is men who typically make up the employees at water companies, or at least in the technical side of the business. Men are making decisions about water on a bigger scale despite not being involved in a more tangible way at home.
According to a 2014 report by the International Water Association on human resource capacity in 15 developing countries in the water supply, sanitation, and hygiene sector, an average of only 17 percent of staff in the water and sanitation sector are female. Especially in technical fields in the public and private water sectors, female professionals are significantly underrepresented.
– The Rising Tide
In counties where water has become industrialised, we do see a less gendered interaction in the home, although it is still common to find women responsible for washing, cleaning and cooking. But because water is available on tap, the interaction takes less time, less effort and is therefore less unequal than in other parts of the world. But again, if we turn to a society level view instead of domestic we find that the picture is less equal. Writing about the UK in 2004, Veronica Strang noted that:
“The groups directly in control of water resources are very male-dominated, most particularly in terms of who actually owns, makes decisions about or acts upon water… women have the least part in looking after or controlling water resources directly, and in terms of real ownership of water they are almost invisible. However, there remains one place where their water management is crucial: in the domestic sphere they are – as they have always been – the major users and managers of water.”
This is crucial to note as “control of water is inevitably control of life and livelihood” (Colin Ward). The groups who control this vital resource have political, economic and social power. We, in the UK, are on the whole, passive recipients of water. We turn on a tap and it’s there. We do not value it the same as we did when we had to collect it and carry it.
“If you carry water, it’s part of you… you kind of embody it really, then you are really in touch with it”
– Karen Wimhurst, quoted by Strang
Because of the gendered experience of water, the impact on women of poor water supply is different than that for men. An example is that women cannot relieve themselves in the open air in the same way as men and so poor sanitation has a greater impact on them. They also tend to shoulder the responsibility for the health and cleanliness of their children, and water quality and availability play an important role in that.
Around the world, about 1 in 10 people cannot be sure that their water is safe to drink. This means that you either risk drinking water which could harm you or you must boil it to sterilise it. In parts of the world where fuel is scarce, or must be collected, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. If you’ve already spent a considerable about of time collecting the water for the day and then you must go out and find firewood, you rapidly lose time you need to spend on cooking and looking after children etc. More people are killed by drinking bad water than by war.
There is also the economic impact as girls are taken out of school to help collect water and because there is unsuitable facilities for maintaining personal hygiene, especially important to girls when they begin menstruating. This limits their job opportunities and deprives them of education.
Let’s turn for a moment to a few facts and figures from the United Nations:
- About three quarters of households in sub-Saharan Africa fetch water from a source away from their home and 50% to 85% of the time, women are responsible for this task.
- In South Africa, in poor rural households, women who fetch water and fuel wood spend 25% less time in paid employment.
- Reducing the time it takes to fetch water from 30 to 15 minutes increased girls’ school attendance by 12% according to a study in Tanzania.
- About 44 million pregnant women have sanitation-related hookworm infections that pose a considerable health burden in developing societies.
Whilst it is a vast and complex arena, it is crucial that we understand how water and gender interact so that actions can be taken which both enhance access to water but which also help in the journey towards gender equality.
Further than simply perpetuating gender inequality, Strang claims that changes in water management actually “helped to establish male dominance in political, economic and religions terms”. With this in mind, it is clear that an understanding of the history of water can inform the future and help us to improve water access and quality as well as empowering the lives of women around the world.
To look at water through a gendered lens provides an interesting perspective on a resource that so many of us take for granted. Similarly, one can view historical changes and attitudes through the lens of water and water management. If this is a topic of interest, I’d recommend picking up a copy of The Meaning of Water by Veronica Strang and download The Rising Tide.
You might also want to watch a couple of YouTube videos on the subject: