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Bridging the gap: The interconnected struggle for water access and the elimination of gender-based violence

In the pursuit of a world that upholds universal human rights, the pivotal role of access to clean water and sanitation cannot be overstated. Acknowledged by the United Nations as a cornerstone for health, dignity, and prosperity, the right to water and sanitation is a fundamental human entitlement. Yet, despite global resolutions and commitments acknowledging this fundamental right, a disconcerting reality persists. A significant number of individuals, particularly women and marginalised groups, find themselves entangled in the intricate challenges of insufficient access to safe water and sanitation, unraveling a complex tapestry of challenges that extends beyond mere infrastructure.

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly took a historic step by explicitly recognising the human right to water and sanitation through Resolution 64/292.This landmark resolution called upon states and international organisations to ensure safe, clean, accessible, and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all by allocating financial resources, facilitating technology transfer, and strengthening capacity-building.

Whereas in 2015, the United Nations acknowledged the individual rights to secure access to clean drinking water and sanitation through Resolution 70/169 and, in the same resolution, urged states to incorporate a gender-based approach when developing and implementing water and sanitation programs, including facilitating the effective and equitable participation of women in decision-making concerning water and sanitation management. This commitment was further solidified in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with countries pledging to achieve SDG 6 – ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Crucially, the human rights to water have been referred to in various international instruments, particularly those addressing the concerns of women and girls. Key among these instruments are the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the Declaration on the Right to Development (1986).

Despite global efforts and commitments, current global statistics present a grim reality. The World Bank’s estimation indicates that roughly two billion individuals lack access to safely managed water, with Sub-Saharan Africa trailing behind compared to other regions. Notably, within this demographic, an alarming number of women and children bear the most significant disproportionate impact. Adding complexity to the issue, women and other marginalised groups often face discrimination and exclusion in decision-making processes related to water and sanitation enhancements.

The results of the human resource evaluation carried out across 15 countries and outlined in the United Nations World Water Development Report 2016 highlight a striking reality: the report suggests that despite serving as the primary providers, managers, and users of water in developing economies, women make up less than 17% of water, sanitation, and hygiene workforce. Their representation in roles influencing policymaking, regulation, management, and technical expertise remains minimal, hindering women’s comprehensive development and empowerment. This situation unravels an intricate web of challenges extending beyond mere infrastructure, emphasising a significant gap between policy aspirations and the actual implementation in the water sector, showcasing limited advancements to date.

The uneven allocation of water resources, compounded by the effects of climate change, intensifies these challenges. In the realm of climate change, women, and girls, especially in economically challenged regions, bear an uneven burden. The scales are tipped against them due to disparities in financial security and influence, which often favor the opposite gender, particularly in low-resource countries. The adverse effects of climate change on women are notably pronounced in both rural and urban environments, where water availability for essential services may face significant disruptions.

Climate change triggers significant shifts in weather patterns, resulting in unpredictable water availability, heightened scarcity, and contaminated supplies. This poses a pronounced threat to the effective enjoyment of human rights related to water and sanitation, with women facing a particularly acute impact. As primary caretakers and household managers, women bear a direct and severe brunt when climate change endangers their access to water, food, and energy security. The consequent risk to their economic prospects exacerbates the challenges they confront amid evolving climatic conditions, underscoring the imperative for gender-sensitive approaches to address the multifaceted impacts of climate change and ensure the resilience and well-being of women and girls in both rural and urban contexts.

In various regions, women and girls shoulder the primary responsibility for securing water for wide range of tasks such as household cleaning, cooking, laundry, childcare, and engaging in small-scale agriculture. The uneven distribution of water resources places a substantial burden on women and girls, compelling them to embark on lengthy journeys to fetch water, often at the expense of educational and economic opportunities. This situation is further exacerbated by the isolation of water sources, particularly in rural areas, heightening the vulnerability of women and children to the risk of sexual violence, including harassment, assault, and rape.

Exploiting the remoteness of these locations and the lack of adequate security measures, perpetrators may engage in such acts. As an illustration, Meyiwa et al. (2014) documented instances where adolescent girls in Eastern Cape, South Africa, faced regular abductions and sexual assaults while en route to water collection points. These traumatic experiences often resulted in coerced child marriages, a phenomenon accepted within the community under the term “bridal abduction” or “Ukuthwala”.

Cultural norms and stereotypes deeply underlie gender disparities in water collection. In many societies, the mere idea of men fetching water is painted with the brush of shame and humiliation. It is as if there is an unspoken rule that water retrieval is an exclusively female domain. This ingrained perception not only perpetuates outdated stereotypes but also has a ripple effect on gender dynamics. While the absence of water itself may not directly cause gender-based violence, it undeniably amplifies existing patterns, adding urgency to the need for transforming cultural norms.

Gender-based violence, which encompasses physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, remains a pervasive issue affecting one in three women globally. The intricate connection between limited water access and gender-based violence is compounded by societal taboos and the discreet nature of violence against women in numerous countries. The complex link is exacerbated as many incidents remain unreported due to feelings of shame, fear of reprisal, and a hesitancy among law enforcement to intervene. Additionally, traditional gender norms not only bolster GBV but also contribute to its persistence.

A Call to Action

The elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls is a crucial target of SDG 5 on gender equality, emphasising the need for a comprehensive approach to address this pervasive issue. As we navigate the intricate dynamics between the right to water and gender-based violence, a resounding call for action reverberates. Inclusive planning, equitable governance, and sustainable solutions are imperative to bridge the divide and ensure no one is left behind. Governments, international organisations, and communities must collaboratively work to dismantle cultural barriers that perpetuate gender inequalities in access to water and sanitation.

The fight for water rights is intricately linked to the broader struggle for human rights. It is a fight for equality, dignity, and the well-being of every individual, regardless of gender or socio-economic status. By addressing the root causes of inequality and discrimination, we can create a world where the water right is not just a theoretical commitment but a tangible reality for all. Only through collective efforts and a steadfast commitment to justice can we disentangle the complex web that interconnects the right to water, gender equality, climate justice with the urgent need to eradicate gender-based violence.

By Agnes Mondlane (Researcher at the Southern Litigation Centre)