How clean water is a gendered issue

Rhianna Ilube is Support Officer for the International Youth Engagement Unit at Restless Development UK. To mark World Water Day 2016, she writes on the connections between clean water, freedom and gender equality.

Did you know that in South Africa, women collectively walk the equivalent distance of 16 times to the moon and back every day just to collect the water needed for their families survival?

Today is World Water Day and yet writing about water has made me quiet. I had to stop and think about water in a way I rarely do. At home, I turn on the tap and expect clean water to fall through my fingers. Out in the city, I ask for tap water at a restaurant and receive it without a thought. I wash, I drink, I wear clothes without much thought for my daily footprints of water. They say privilege is a blindness, an ability to walk through life without needing to think about a particular issue.

So today I’ve been reading and learning. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a girl, to be a woman. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be free. And today I’ve been thinking about how water and sanitation influence the experiences of women worldwide and ideas of freedom.

Speaking of women and freedom, I attended an event on household chores at the ‘Women of the World Festival‘ in London. This panel made me reflect on gender inequities within households I know and love with regard to under-valued domestic labour. Beyond a doubt, women globally spend far more time on household chores than men, diverting time and energies away from other opportunities for self-fulfillment. Yet despite attending an international women’s festival, all the panelists were from the UK. Which meant that the question of water and women was quieted by the loudest voices in the room.

Following this event, then, I was shocked to read the new UNESCO-endorsed report entitled ‘Water for Women: Every woman counts. Every Second Counts.’ Seeing water through the eyes of women and girls worldwide, a striking story of lost time emerges. Tears may fall. A few facts to share:

  • Surveys from 45 developing countries show that women and children bear the primary responsibility for water collection in 76% of households.
  • On average, globally, women and children spend 200 million hours every day collecting water.
  • In Africa and Asia, girls and children walk an average of 3.7 miles a day just to fetch water.
  • Women represent 40% of the global labour force, yet in Sub-Saharan African 40 billion working hours are lost every year to water collection.
  • One in four girls does not complete primary school compared to one in seven boys. However, school enrollment rates for girls have been shown to improve by over 15% when provided with clear water and a toilet facility, given girls no longer have to walk miles every day to fetch water.

The question of clean water and sanitation is absolutely gendered, global and political. All these issues connect and flow. The achievement of Goal 14: Clean Water and Sanitation, is essential for Goal 5: Gender Equality.

Writing on World Water Day thus brings my thoughts round to Eva. Eva is a young girl from Tanzania. I don’t even know her yet her words make me smile and cry at the same time.

Eva and her classmates at Mlowa School are asking the Tanzanian government for clean water and safe toilets at their school. In this video, she speaks of her true love for education and the sadness she feels as she misses class to walk for water twice a day. Clean water is needed in the community, so that Eva and her friends can stay in school and pursue their goals. Eva is brave and powerful and she is demanding the right to have time. Time to learn and think and feel and play, just like any person should. Demanding the time to be young.

Yes, access to clean water is access to freedom and time and space to focus on the things that really matter. Increasing access to clean water and sanitation, within communities and at school, can open up many more moments to live and thrive – through family, community, education, leisure, work and so much else. The link between water and gender equality should not rest unspoken. Eva is brave and powerful and through water, she is demanding the right to have time to dream and achieve.


1) A. Roberts, 2008

2) Women for Water Report, 2016

3) World Health Organisation and UNICEF

4) (The) Right to Water, Fact Sheet No. 35. United Nations, OHCHR, UN-HABITAT, WHO

5)   World Bank, 2012/UNDP, 2009.

6)   UN:

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How clean water is a gendered issue

by wearerestless Reading time: 3 min