The Global Water Partnership (GWP) was established in 1996 to contribute to Integrated Water resources Management (IWRM) as a foundation for sustainable development. Social equity, diversity, and inclusion are core values of GWP and considered indispensable for the sustainable use and management of water resources. The GWP developed its Gender Strategy in 2014 as a supplement to the overall strategy towards 2020 to address its role in advancing gender sensitive and women-inclusive water governance and management at all levels.1 The GWP gender strategy zooms in on the water and gender interface.

Why Work on the Water and Gender Interface?

Water is in everything. It is not only needed for drinking, growing food, and personal hygiene but also for industrial processes and energy provision. Nature equally depends on water, and we, in turn, depend on healthy ecosystems for our survival and well-being.

Being able to access sufficient and safe water to perform daily functions is key in overcoming poverty and building sustainable livelihoods. Today’s reality however, is that millions of people do not have this basic security. While statistics showing how this affects men and women differently are limited, it is easy to see that women and girls in the developing world are disproportionately affected and often literally carry the burden of daily water provision.

Gender equality, like access to water and sanitation, is considered key for the development of a healthy and prosperous society. Gender equality is not only about equal access to resources, but it also means women should have an equal voice in decision-making and that they fully take part in all sectors and spheres of society. Centering gender equality and women’s empowerment in the achievement of sustainable development has therefore been a recurrent theme in international development policies.

A good 20 years have passed since the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 adopted the Beijing Platform for Action. This was a global agenda to empower women and ensure their contribution to sustainable development, including to the management and safeguarding of water resources. In terms of water more specifically, the central role of women in the provision, management, and safeguarding of water and their full participation as a stakeholder is prominently included in the Dublin Principles for Integrated Water Resources Management of 1992.2 Women’s involvement in water-related development efforts was also specifically called for in the International Decade for Action Water for Life20052015, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly to establish water cooperation inclusively between sectors and transnationally.3

Despite such longstanding international agreements and calls for action, the gender and water agenda still lacks traction. There are pockets of success, such as the increased involvement of women’s civil society in water resources development and management through the Women for Water Partnership,4 the pan-African gender strategy and policy of the African Ministers Council on Water (AMCOW) that guides the work of the African Union members to mainstream gender in water policies and practice,5 and the work of the International Fund for Agricultural Development on women’s access to land and water and their participation in rural development projects.6 On the whole, however, under the Millennium Development Goal agenda of the past 15 years, emphasis has been on technical service provision; social equity and women’s inclusion as underlying principles for the sustainable use and management of water resources have not been addressed in a systematic way. A shift in perspective to an inclusive, gender-sensitive approach to water is required, which the GWP aims to support.

Water Security and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

A mother and child sit near a public drinking water tank in the Kavango region of Namibia.

The vision of the GWP is for a water-secure world.7 Under current population growth, rapid urbanization, increased conflict, and climate change, this is a growing challenge, especially as water security is much broader than just access to water for basic needs. It includes social, environmental, and economic dimensions of water availability and the management of water-related risks such as scarcity, floods, conflicts, and resource degradation. Water security requires reliable water delivery for all uses at acceptable prices, quantities, and quality and the protection of lives and livelihoods against water-related disasters.8 In short, it centers water as the foundation and glue of sustainable development at large.

In September 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. For the next 15 years, this agreement will guide the efforts of countries and the international community to end poverty, promote human well-being, and protect the environment. It is an ambitious agenda that wants to ensure no one is left behind and that considers all of society engagement and partnership as a main driver for change.9 The 2030 Development Agenda re-emphasizes the centrality of gender equality and women’s empowerment to make such a participatory and inclusive approach a reality on the ground. Goal 5—to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls—includes a commitment to boost women’s agency, which will benefit all the other development goals. There is also a dedicated goal for water, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6—ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. This reconfirms that water security is foundational in achieving food and energy security, social stability, economic prosperity, disaster risk reduction, and peace.

According to the World Water Development Report 2015, “The principle of equity, perhaps more than any technical recommendation, carries with it the promise of a more water-secure world for all.”10 The GWP gender strategy addresses the interface of the fifth and sixth SDG, which has a high, untapped potential to contribute to water security and equitable access, specifically the needs and challenges of those furthest behind. Access to water plays an important role in empowering poor and marginalized people, the majority of whom still are women and girls.

The GWP Gender Strategy: From Principles to Practice

Water security and gender challenges vary globally. Countries fall on different parts of the ‘development spectrum’ and will all have different gender realities, development priorities, capacities, and needs. The analysis of country-specific situations and an assessment of where efforts in the gender–water–development nexus may have strong impact on achieving the SDGs are important in ensuring effective outputs. This analysis will lead to tailor-made efforts under the overall framework that the GWP Gender Strategy presents.

The GWP network consists of over 3000 partners in 182 countries that are structured around 85 Country Water Partnerships and 13 Regional Water Partnerships. Each have their own governance structures and work plans that translate the agreed GWP strategy into the priorities and working modalities of their countries and regions. The Intergovernmental Organisation GWPO facilitates the work of these GWP partners, predominantly through supporting and strengthening the Country and Regional Water Partnerships.

While individual GWP partners may develop specific water and gender activities of their own, the work under the gender strategy concentrates on creating an enabling environment for gender-sensitive and women-inclusive water governance. Following the three GWP strategic goals, this is done through: 1) international and national agenda setting, awareness raising, and policy support; 2) creating the evidence-based knowledge for informed decision-making, for shaping policies, and translating policies into practice; and 3) creating strong multistakeholder partnerships that jointly develop the necessary action to ensure that women are not left behind and can fully benefit from and contribute to water resources use and management.

Gender roles have a strong bearing on how and what women can contribute to achieving water security for all, both individually and as a social group. Given that stakeholder participation is a core business of GWP and that women are considered an important stakeholder group, the GWP Gender Strategy specifically zooms in on women as contributors to water security. There are various aspects to women’s inclusion in the water sector: gender parity amongst water professionals, equal participation of women in decision-making, and the use of the social capital of women’s networks for strengthening community participation and creating a strong civil society that can realize participatory water governance on the ground.11

(Inter)National Agenda Setting, Awareness Raising, and Policy Support

Gender roles determine how women and men are affected differently by the development, use, and management of water resources. Thus, in countries and situations where there are striking gender roles, it is particularly important to view water policies and programs through a gender lens. A well-known example is the AMCOW gender strategy and policy, of which the GWP Regional Water Partnerships in Africa are an active partner in the development and implementation.12 This gender strategy and policy was developed jointly by state and non-state actors and now leads efforts to address the gender gaps in water management, distribution, and access and to stimulate the full and equal participation of women in developing and executing water policies and programs.

World Water Day 2016 was celebrated on March 22, and GWP Central Africa marked the day with a special event.

As a national-level example, the GWP gender strategy has sparked gender and water integration in Brazil, a country with longstanding commitment to IWRM and gender equality, with national policies and action plans in place for both. Water & Gender dialogues were organized by the National Water Agency (ANA), GWP Brazil, and the National Policy for Women of Brazil. This resulted in the creation of a gender committee, which focuses on internal issues (e.g., establishing a gender-sensitive culture within the agency and including gender issues in all its programs, projects, and actions) as well as on external issues (e.g., promoting the recognition that women play a central role in the provision, management, and safeguarding of water). This committee will be linked to the board of ANA. Following this, other gender committees related to water resource secretariats have been or are in the process of being established throughout Brazil. With this, Brazil is creating an enabling environment to systematically address gender in water in a decentralized way, and with full inclusion of women. The GWP Gender Strategy has been translated into Portuguese and made available to all Lusophone countries.

Evidence-based Knowledge

GWP creates and shares knowledge and tools for inclusive policies and plans. Gender Focal Points are tasked with addressing the gender dimension of GWP’s work. Knowledge generated in our diverse network of partners is evidence-based and informs decision-makers and practitioners alike. The network has mechanisms for regular peer exchange between and within regions like, for instance, annual Regional Days and thematic policy dialogues. The diverse knowledge products feed into the global fora where international frameworks for action are shaped and agreed upon.

Multi-stakeholder Partnerships for Consultation and Action

GWP works through inclusive multi-stakeholder partnerships. Country and regional water partnerships offer neutral platforms for multi-stakeholder dialogue and facilitate cooperation, as talking to and learning from others creates trust and understanding. It also helps groups such as government agencies, scientists, technical experts, business communities, NGOs, women, youth, Indigenous people, farmers, and community-based organizations find common grounds for action.

There are 85 countries in which GWP currently has an accredited Country Water Partnership. Strengthening these to promote women’s voices in national and local water dialogues will contribute to national agenda setting that includes women’s needs and expertise in water programming.

A Water Partnership in Sri Lanka presents an example of women leadership in ensuring the gender-sensitive and women-inclusive practice of GWP at national and subnational levels. NetWater, the network of Women Water Professionals in Sri Lanka and founding member of the Sri Lanka Water Partnership, has developed Gender & Water Dialogues that take place annually at the district level as an important activity of the partnership since 2004. The deliberate inclusion of women’s civil society voices has led to gender sensitive and informed decision-making by national and local authorities. Women-to-women networking on water-related development issues has furthermore resulted in many community-based and women-led projects that show a high degree of sustainability. For instance, in the drinking water sector, the bottom-up movement of women’s participation, supported by the Sri Lanka Water Partnership, improved drinking water facility management and sanitation—including at schools—highlighted menstrual hygiene management, and spun off a set of other social and economic development initiatives such as home gardens for sustainable agriculture and cooperation with local business partners for women’s entrepreneurship.

An important part of getting women included is strengthening women’s civil society so that they are equipped to participate on an equal footing. For this purpose, GWP signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Women for Water Partnership (WfWP), a global women’s civil society network that empowers women’s grassroots work and enables their full participation in water governance at all levels.

Social networks of women are generally built on trust and reciprocity, shared ethical norms, and mutual support, making them a valuable partner to develop local ownership and good water governance.13 In Pakistan, for example, the urban Karachi Water Partnership engages women’s networks as stakeholders in decision-making processes. The main aim was to promote good governance beyond just 50 percent involvement of women, empowering them to be part of a more efficient system. There were training and discussion workshops to raise awareness and capacity. These networks of women have played an instrumental role in implementing water-demand management initiatives and in discussions with government ministries on enhancing water laws, which now reflect more equitable resource sharing.

Final Thoughts

Gender is a complex and multifaceted issue, and GWP is a diverse and multilayered network that works on integrated approaches in water management, which is also complex in itself. To include gender in water-related work in a relevant and manageable way, assessing the country-specific situation is an important first step.

Bridging the gap between conceptual understandings of gender issues and everyday realities of accessing and using water is the ultimate challenge. It can only be realized by involving affected people to articulate their issues and participate in creating solutions. Serious pre-investment in the strengthening of these local actors is vital. In this context, adequate support should be given to women’s civil society to engage with gender and water-sector specialists as equal collaborators in water-related development efforts. Without this commitment, we will not have the bottom–up processes that complement the top–down policy processes, and the realization of our ambitions for full social engagement and partnership will fail.

The successful integration of gender in water-related development efforts relies on ownership, commitment, leadership, and perseverance. It is a slow process of social transformation and mind-set change. A strong and multi-stakeholder partnership that initiates and fuels this process is indispensable. And it is imperative that women are an equal partner in this process and strengthened—where needed—to play their role as agents of change.


The author is grateful to the GWP secretariat; in particular, gender focal point Ankur Gupta for constructive contribution to this article. A special word of thanks goes to Gisela Damm-Forattini of GWP Brazil and Kusum Athukorala of GWP Sri Lanka for providing the examples from their countries. Last but not least, my highest appreciation for all partners and individuals in the GWP family for their past and ongoing efforts to making gender sensitive and women inclusive water management and governance a reality the ground.


  1. GWP Gender Strategy. Global Water Partnership [online] (2014).
  2. Dublin Principles 2 and 3. The Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development. UN Documents [online] (1992).
  3. Water for Life 2005–2015. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs [online].
  4. Schuster-Wallace, CJ, Cave, K, Bouman-Dentener, A & Holle, F. Women, WaSH and the Water for Life Decade. United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health and the
  5. Women for Water Partnership [online] (2015).
  6. AMCOW Policy and Strategy for Mainstreaming Gender in the Water Sector in Africa. African Ministers Council on Water [online] (2011).
  7. Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. Scaling up note. IFAD [online] (2015).
  8. Global Water Partnership: A key global asset. Briefing note. GWP [online] (2016).
  9. Sadoff, CW et al. Securing Water, Sustaining Growth: Report of the GWP/OECD Task Force on Water Security and Sustainable Growth. University of Oxford [online] (2015).
  10. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A/RES/70/1. UN [online] (2015).
  11. WWAP (United Nations World Water Assessment Programme). The United Nations World Water Development Report 2015: Water for a Sustainable World. UNESCO [online] (2015).
  12. Rogers, P & Hall, A. Effective Water Governance. GWP-TEC background paper #7 [online] (2003).
  13. Salo, E. Gender and Water Policies in Africa: Synthesis Report. Water Research Commission and Global Water Partnership [online] (2015).
  14. Bouman-Dentener, AM. Women as Agents of Change in Water; reflections on experiences from the field. Chapter 3. Women for Water Partnership, The Hague [online] (2015).

Alice Bouman-Dentener

Alice’s work on the water-gender-development interface started when she was selected Women’s Representative for the Netherlands to the United Nations General Assembly in 1999, where she addressed the...

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