An opinion piece By Lina Taing and Grace Oluwasanya
In the water sector, blind spots pose a particular barrier to progress.
Blind spots due to limited data, discriminatory structural and systemic violations such as stereotypes and norms need to be urgently addressed.
Even within the SDGs, there are blind spots: none of the 11 indicators for SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation) are related to gender.
While “paying special attention to the needs of women and girls” is descriptively highlighted in Target 6.2 (adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene), all of SDG 6’s indicators are gender-blind as data such as the proportion of women and girls accessing safe services or involved in decision-making are not monitored.
The water sector needs to collect gender-disaggregated data measuring women’s ability to meet their water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) needs, access resources, and exercise urgency if it is to develop evidence-based gender equality policies and interventions.
The water sector can draw from the SDG Agenda’s 53 gender-specific indicators, a recent review on gender-related WASH measures, and quantitative measures of social change informed by a feminist perspective to build a gender-specific monitoring system at programmatic, national, and global scales.
Meanwhile, less than half of 109 countries reporting on gender mainstreaming in water laws and policies specifically mention women’s participation in resource management and rural sanitation.
And in places where women’s equality seems most advanced, some of the women that managed to get a seat at the table have complained of their participation being tokenistic in both community and government structures.
When women’s perspectives are not incorporated in policies and the construction and location of supposedly gender-neutral water infrastructure, resulting interventions can constrain women’s economic and educational opportunities.
Women can also feel insecure about using services that put their safety at risk and do not meet their basic menstrual hygiene disposal and personal cleansing needs.
Meaningful and substantial women’s empowerment efforts and representation are critical to ensure that current systems are transformed to tackle the harmful roots of inequality in the water sector. The causes of these violations need to be uprooted if a lasting change is to be achieved.
Outdated stereotypes and social norms – such as women being steered to traditional caregiving domestic and professional roles – are at the root of gender bias and barriers in the water sector.
Additionally, socio-institutional expectations and patriarchal practices limit many women’s ability to reconcile the time and energy committed to caregiving and work.
Consequently, women are overrepresented in unpaid work roles (including water carriage) and underrepresented in industrial leadership or decision-making roles.
While sectoral interventions have targeted gender imbalances in domestic roles and decision-making, gender mainstreaming in the workplace continues to be an uphill struggle.
Globally, less than one in five water sector workers are women, with underrepresentation in both technical and managerial positions.
To break this institutional barrier, the World Bank advises addressing salary inequities by assessing gender pay gaps for equivalent work, offering staff training opportunities informed by a gender lens, and adopting a four-pronged approach that attracts, recruits, retains, and offers career advancement opportunities for the next generation of female water leaders.
The realization of gender equality is a key component of the global development agenda and essential if the water sector is to contribute to the achievement of SDGs 1 (no poverty), 5 (gender equality), 6 (clean water and sanitation), and 10 (reduced inequalities).
Putting gender-disaggregated data measures, supportive legal and physical infrastructure, and inclusive social systems and institutions in place can help #breakthebias by overcoming gender blind spots that perpetuate harmful and inequitable divisions of control, power, and labor.