‘Women’ and water inequality: why we need to look deeper into ‘gender’ to overcome water inequality
By Rosa M Sulley, on 27 July 2017
The global water crisis is happening right now. WaterAid states that “a lack of safe water, proper toilets and good hygiene affects women and girls most” making water poverty undoubtedly a gender issue. However, if we are going to properly understand and account for all experiences of water poverty, we need to change the way we think about gender, women, and water.
Gender and Development Approaches to Water Poverty
The gendered nature of water poverty was brought to the world’s attention by feminist critiques of gender inequality in development and access to natural resources. Through research, academia, and activism on gender inequality, the burden on women and girls of collecting water and carrying out domestic water tasks has become well-known, contributing to the continued promotion of ‘Gender and Development’ (GAD) approaches in international policy.
Borne out of critiques of ‘Women in Development’ (WID), which was the first attempt to integrate women into the international development agenda, GAD emerged in the late 1980s and has gained significant attention in academic research, development practice, and policy at all scales. It brought a new focus on the socially constructed differences between men and women to global development policy and discourse, and encouraged an analysis of gender roles and gender relations. In relation to water, GAD approaches therefore privileged investigation into how gender roles and relations influence uneven access to and control over water resources. Much of the work in the water sector is informed by this approach, meaning water programmes and initiatives, especially in the Global South, have increasingly had a gender focus.
However, there are many feminist authors who challenge the practical application of GAD approaches. Although GAD intended to move away from a focus just on women, in practice, ‘gender’ is still commonly synonymised with ‘women’ in policy and practice. As a result, gender approaches and gender mainstreaming in water programmes often slip back into single perspectives. Within gender mainstreaming, this focus on women also often results in the homogenisation of ‘women’ as a single category, suggesting that all who fall under that category experience water inequality in the same way.
I want to stress here that in writing this article I am no way trying to reduce or overlook the evident gender inequality and water struggles which many women and girls experience in their daily lives around the world. Rather, highlight the problems with the current way gender is commonly conceptualised in water projects; where generalised statements like ‘poor women are more impacted’ are common. Such statements perpetuate global narratives of a homogenous, vulnerable Global South woman suffering from water poverty, and render differing experiences of water inequality invisible. For example, images of water poverty are often of non-white women struggling to carry and collect water, as shown below.
However, it would be far too simplistic to say that these two women experience water inequality in the same way just because they are both women. What about other factors such as their age, where they live, their class? And how do all of these interconnect through different social relations? Nonetheless, inaccurate assumptions that all women suffer equally, and can therefore be empowered equally through targeted ‘gendered’ interventions, guide many water programmes.
The dominance of such simplified narratives is having negative consequences. Wider social relations can undermine programmes directed at women, and there are a number of examples of water interventions which actually resulted in further marginalisation due to a limited understanding of these other social factors and relations.
The Importance of Other Social Relations
The notion that gender constitutes something far more complex than simply ‘male’ or ‘female’ has gained significant ground in academic work. A feminist theory known as intersectionality has been at the forefront of such thinking, arguing that gender always intersects with other social identities and relations, including race, caste, class, age, ethnicity, sexuality, for example. Intersectionality suggests that it is all of these different identities and relations and how they come together in different ways which is important for determining how someone experiences (water) inequality and poverty.
Allen and Hofmann explain this clearly in their recent book chapter on urban water and sanitation poverty in Lima and Dar es Salaam. They use intersectional analysis to show how women and men go through dynamic trajectories in and out of water poverty due to factors such as whether they are renters or landowners and relations with other people in the community. For example, they follow the life of one entrepreneurial woman who lives in her family house and sells drinking water in reused plastic bottles that she fills with water from the pushcart vendors. She is able to sell water because she is well known in the community, giving her extra income to secure access to water for herself. Whereas another woman, also with her own business, is constrained by her position as a renter. Her landlord keeps raising rents and, despite her business, she struggles to find the money to meet the basic water needs of her family.
Understanding water poverty in this way and further exploring how water inequality is differentially experienced is extremely important. It not only sheds light on how micro-politics shape differing levels of empowerment and disempowerment, but also links such dynamics to broader structural issues through multi-scalar investigation. This helps to explain at multiple levels why and how some women can escape water poverty water whilst others cannot. Too much of a practical focus on ‘women’ as a homogenised, fixed, singular category clearly hides other significant factors through which water poverty is embedded and comes to be produced and experienced.
Therefore, this could, and should, have meaningful implications for policy and water practices for better targeted interventions. Although intersectionality is a well-known theory, currently there is little literature and even less policy focus on intersectional water poverty, or even in relation to socio-ecological inequality in the Global South more widely. The hope is that with the gradual increase in academic publications which attend to complex ideas of gender and social difference in relation to water, there will be a shift towards those who experience multi-layered water inequalities right now. We have begun to change the way we think about gender, women, and water, but now we need to question how we approach and overcome water inequalities in practice.
Photo credit for the image of two women carrying water: https://www.flickr.com/photos/adjourned/3069327644
Rosa is an LIDC intern and a Master’s student of Environment and Sustainable Development at the Development Planning Unit, UCL. She is interested in water poverty and policy, gender, and development in urban contexts.