GENDER, WATER, & SANITATION FAQ

What is the difference between sex and gender?
Why is it valuable to look at gender (women, men, and marginalized communities) in water and sanitation?
Do women and men (and marginalized communities) have equal access to water and sanitation?
What is the difference between women’s empowerment and gender equality in the water and sanitation sector?
How can development practitioners incorporate a gender-sensitive perspective in water and sanitation?

What is the difference between sex and gender?

Many people confuse gender with sex. Sex is the classification of species as female or male based on reproductive organs. Gender is the culturally-influenced roles and responsibilities of females and males. Roles and responsibilities of women and men in society are based on culture and history. All women do not have the same roles and responsibilities, and all men do not have the same roles and responsibilities. Women and men form heterogeneous groups with different needs and concerns. Social constructs influencing interactions of women and men with water and sanitation resources include caste, class, race/ethnicity, income/wealth, or religion. These constructs may be nuanced by nation, region, state, village, or household.

Why is it valuable to look at gender (women, men, and marginalized communities) in water and sanitation?

It is necessary to evaluate conditions that affect women’s and men’s access, planning, and management of water and sanitation resources to create equitable water and sanitation systems. Considering ‘gender’ in water and sanitation is not only about considering ‘women’ in water and sanitation. It is about considering women and men of all socioeconomic backgrounds (especially marginalized communities) and their interactions with water and sanitation resources. It is important to acknowledge disparities between women and men, between women, and between men. For example (as a friend once taught me),  an old, widowed, landless, tribal woman is perhaps the most marginalized individual in India.

Women and men use water resources for different reasons and are affected by a lack of water in different ways. Women are shouldered with the primary responsibility for water transport and management in households in rural areas in developing countries, but their needs and concerns are often not incorporated into planning and management of water systems. Women use water for production purposes like agriculture, livestock rearing, or aquaculture, but social or economic status limits their access to water for such purposes. Because women’s needs are often not incorporated into water planning and management, they endure hardships. Women have to walk long distances to collect water, women care for those stricken by water-related illnesses, pregnant women and mothers need clean water to raise healthy children, women’s land and water rights are not recognized, and water systems are not built to meet the needs of women.

Women and men use sanitation resources for different reasons and are affected by a lack of sanitation in different ways. Many young women attending a school without adequate sanitation drop out once they hit puberty because they have nowhere to take care of their menstrual cycle. Women without sanitation facilities relieve themselves in the middle of the night for fear of being seen by males. This puts them in danger from sexual harassment and animal attacks, especially snake bites. Women’s needs should be taken into account for sanitation planning and management because, among other reasons, women are most often responsible for cleaning latrines, cleaning incontinent children or elderly people, and caring for people that have contracted illnesses due to inadequate sanitation.

Do women and men (and marginalized communities) have equal access to water and sanitation?

It depends. Sometimes women have worse access to water than men. A disproportionate number of women – especially women-headed households and landless women – encounter difficulties accessing water for agricultural uses in some rural areas in developing countries. Women are either unable to purchase land or their ownership-rights are not acknowledged due to patriarchal customs. They are unable to participate in irrigation-water management groups or their needs are not considered when planning or managing irrigation-water systems. Sometimes men have worse access to water than women. Men and women in a minority caste group (known as dalits) are not allowed to use the same water sources as dominant caste groups in a number of rural villages in India. It is difficult for marginalized communities – both women and men – lacking financial, technical, or social support to gain access to improved sanitation. One in three people (or about 2.6 billion people) in the world do not have adequate sanitation facilities.

What is the difference between women’s empowerment and gender equality in the water and sanitation sector?

Women’s empowerment is the increased capacity of a women to make decisions regarding water and sanitation resources on the household, political, economic, and social scales. Gender equality is the equal treatment of women and men in laws and polices related to, equal participation of women and men in planning and management of, and equal access for women and men to water and sanitation resources. Women’s empowerment, along with empowerment of marginalized communities, is an important part of achieving gender equality.

How can development practitioners incorporate a gender-sensitive perspective in water and sanitation?

Gender mainstreaming is how water-sector professionals may adopt a more gender-sensitive approach for water and sanitation projects. Gender mainstreaming is incorporating gender-awareness into all aspects of intra-organization and institutional processes such as planning, policy, budgeting, implementation, evaluation and monitoring, and capacity building. A gender-mainstreaming approach requires collection of sex-disaggregated data for planning, involvement of women and marginalized communities for planning and management, and engagement in policy dialogue on gender, water, and sanitation.

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