When a community gets access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene, it’s women and girls whose lives change the most.
WaterAid and Gender Equality
The effects of a lack of clean water and decent toilets are felt most by women and girls. Typically responsible for domestic chores, it's usually women and girls who are expected to collect water from unsafe sources like rivers, streams, and holes in the ground. The journey is often dangerous, and the sheer weight of the full containers can leave life-long injuries.
Many girls spend hours each day collecting water, which can leave them with reduced time to go to school. Those that are able to go to school may miss school, or drop out entirely, when they start menstruating because there aren't any toilets or places to hygienically manage their periods.
When women and girls lack a private place to go to the toilet at home, many only go at night, when the risk of assault, sexual harassment, or animal attacks is increased.
This is the daily reality of life for many women across the countries where we work.
The involvement of women and girls is key to successful, lasting water and sanitation services. We ensure that women are consulted about their preferences for project design, especially where taps and toilets should be placed, and what features they need in order to best meet their needs.
Involving women and girls in projects is important not only because it helps projects better meet people’s needs, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because it positively impacts women's positions in the community. We also engage men to shift their attitudes and change harmful gender norms and power dynamics.
When women take up roles on community water management committees, their social standing and respect within communities are enhanced. Putting women in positions of authority can help them gain confidence, increase their voice, and change gender roles within communities.
Involving women in change outside the community is important, too. Whether working with district governments in an area where we implement projects, or speaking before the United Nations, we ensure women’s voices are present, to help policy makers better understand what makes a tap, toilet, or hygiene campaign work for them.
The importance of decent toilets and good hygiene
Almost 1.7 billion people don't have a toilet, leaving many with no choice but to go outside.
It’s not just undignified, but it’s unsafe too – and women and girls are particularly at risk of harassment, violence, and sexual assault. To avoid having to go in open fields, some wait until nightfall, putting them in even greater danger, and negatively impacting their health.
A lack of toilets and washing facilities makes managing periods much more challenging. When there are no facilities at school, at work, or in public places, many women and girls simply stay at home every month.
Until recently, Anjali would rather stay home than use the dirty, broken toilet at her school in Lahan, Nepal. But with renovated toilet facilities, handwashing stations, and a new menstrual hygiene management room, Anjali is back in the classroom – no matter the time of the month.
"These days I attend school even during my period because there is nothing to worry about. Before I stayed at home, and other girls in the school also come to school these days."
Together with local partners, we've trained teachers in menstrual health and hygiene, and helped to set up a student-led sanitation and hygiene club - of which Anjali is a member.
Every two seconds, a woman gives birth in a healthcare facility without clean water, decent toilets, or good hygiene.
That’s over 16 million women a year that are forced to risk the transmission of deadly infections to both themselves and their babies just to receive medical care during birth.
Women face unique needs around the time of pregnancy and childbirth. A clean, safe, and private environment to give birth is essential to reduce the risk of infections, including maternal and newborn sepsis, and ensuring the delivery of quality, dignified care.
An estimated 30,000 women and 400,000 babies worldwide die every year from infections such as puerperal sepsis, often caused by lack of water, sanitation, and poor hand-washing practices. Furthermore, the lack of water access in healthcare facilities can contribute to the increased use, misuse, and overuse of antibiotics, accelerating antimicrobial resistance.
With a reliable supply of water, staff can keep wards and equipment clean and safe. With working taps, nurses can wash their hands when they need to, and encourage their patients to do the same. And with decent toilets and washing facilities, women can give birth in safety and dignity.
Prior to the rehabilitation of the water and sanitation infrastructure at the local healthcare facility in Geita District, Tanzania, expectant mothers like Susan had to bring their own water for use during delivery.
"The first time I gave birth here was in 2017. There was no water here at that time, so we had to bring water with us from home."
Now, thanks to the Tanzania: Deliver Life project, a partnership among four Canadian organizations funded by the Government of Canada, Susan's healthcare facility and many others like it have running water, flushing toilets, and handwashing stations in the maternity wards and operating rooms.
Because of Tanzania: Deliver Life, twelve healthcare facilities in Tanzania are now better able to serve their communities, leading to better health outcomes. The facilities are supported by sustainable equipment like solar-powered boreholes, rainwater harvesting, and ultraviolet disinfection systems that provide a clean, accessible, and consistent water supply.
“This time when I gave birth, I didn’t have to bring water with me. I have seen good changes at this dispensary, there is water, the place is clean and there is electricity too. I am happy to come here and give birth.”
The unequal burden of climate change
The climate crisis is a water crisis – and women and girls are already feeling the impacts.
As more frequent droughts cause rivers and springs to dry up, the journey to fetch water is only getting longer, hotter, and more dangerous.
Extreme weather events like floods are becoming more common and severe, damaging pipes, polluting water sources, and washing away toilets – and it's women and girls whose health, dignity, and wellbeing suffer the most.
That's why women and girls – at home, in the classroom, as part of community groups – are leading the climate fight and coming up with practical solutions to problems and leading the response to climate adaptation. They’re fixing taps and pumps. They’re organizing change. And they’re taking on even more responsibilities, volunteering as peer educators, hygiene promoters, and water monitors.
Too often, women and girls are left out of conversations because of traditional gender roles and power structures.
In the rural municipality of Samabogo, Mali, the Benkadi cooperative, made up of 45 female members, has taken matters into their own hands and organized themselves to generate income through gardening and growing produce. Until recently, the women in this community were heavily dependent on their husbands to meet even their basic needs.
Now, thanks to training from WaterAid and our local partners, women like Fatimata are in community leadership roles. Fatimata is currently in charge of monitoring water levels and water management for the produce fields.
“Last year we had a lot of difficulties with the management of water in the garden. Everyone used to come at the same time to water their plants. We were wasting the water and some of us spent the day without being able to get water.
But this year, when we were trained and we realized the water level could be measured and monitored, it allowed us to better organize our work. We organized ourselves. There is a group that comes to water the plants in the morning and another that comes in the afternoon.”
The women of Samabogo have created an opportunity for themselves and are reaping the rewards of their hard work and dedication. The Benkadi cooperative is helping women change their lives and find empowerment through unity.
When services are designed by and run solely by men, they ignore women’s valuable perspectives and first-hand experiences. As a result, solutions don’t always meet communities’ needs.
That's why we: