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Gender-aware water policies are needed at every level.
Source: Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters/South

Lack of access to clean potable water has been recognized as a factor increasing women's work burdens in those parts of the world where they are responsible for collecting water for basic needs like cooking, cleaning and hygiene. In some cases water collection can take up to 60 per cent of their working time (UNESCO 2004a).

In rural Africa, women and girls spend as much as three hours a day fetching water, using up more than one-third of their daily caloric energy intake (WEHAB Working Group 2002). This limits the time available for them to engage in wage-earning economic and social activities and development projects. Lack of clean water is also responsible for water-borne diseases among children - one of the major causes of child disease and mortality. This further adds to women's childcare responsibilities.

The lack of easily accessible water has health implications for women as well. Carrying heavy water jars over long distances during pregnancy can result in premature births, prolapsed uterus or back injuries (UNFPA 2003b). Constant exposure to water while collecting, washing clothes, cleaning and cooking puts women at greater risk of contracting water-related diseases. For instance, in eastern Tanzania, urinary schistosomiasis, a water-related disease, was most common among boys, and also among girls and women between the ages of 10 and 40. The incidence among boys was associated with swimming. Among women and girls, it was associated with the local practice of washing clothes while standing in schistosomiasis-infested water (WEDO 2003a).

The importance of involving women in water management in local communities has been well documented over the years. A review of 271 World Bank projects by the International Food Policy Research Institute shows that when women are consulted, sustainability of projects is increased by 16 per cent (IFPRI 2000). Yet, in most parts of the world, women are involved only at the lower echelons of water monitoring and management. Men still take most decisions on water, particularly at the national and global level. The global trend towards privatization of public services may make matters worse, if increased water and energy prices result in decreased access to clean water for poor women. Women have been central in struggles against the privatization of public water services (WEDO 2003b) (Box 6).

Box 6: Women ensuring their own water supplies

In several parts of the world, women have taken matters into their own hands to solve their water problems. In India, the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), a trade union of 215 000 poor, self-employed women, launched a ten-year campaign to revive water sources in drought-prone districts of Gujarat. Women made up seven out of eleven members of the watershed committees set up at village meetings, and the chairperson was also required to be a woman. The committees performed soil and water conservation work, and created green belts and grass cover for better retention of water. The projects reduced soil salinity, resulting in more fertile land and a more sustainable source of income, while generating direct employment opportunities for about 240 women.

In Honduras, women in low-income urban neighbourhoods have taken on and managed their own licensed water-vending points, to fight back against high water prices from private vendors and license holders. The result has been lower and more reliable water prices, part-time employment for poor single women with children, and use of the group's surplus for neighbourhood projects. Women have used the local water supply for income generation through beer brewing, teashops and a launderette.

Source: WEDO 2003a

Non-governmental, governmental, and academic interests have recently begun gender analyses of water resources, management, and supply issues. Support for integrating gender into water resource management has come from the recent World Water Forums - in Marrakech 1997, The Hague 2000, and Kyoto 2003. Despite these commitments, a fully gender-aware water agenda has yet to be taken on board by governments and multilateral agencies.

Such an agenda would include the development of gender-aware water policies at all levels; comprehensive data collection to better understand the gender aspects of water supply, use and informal water management in household economies; gender-sensitive impact studies of water privatization; and the involvement of women in decision making on water use and management. The benefits of such an agenda for women would include increased awareness of health and hygiene in water management, and increased income-generating capacity through time saved in fetching water (Joshi and Fawcett 2001).

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