Women and girls tend to experience and manage access—and the lack of access—to water and sanitation differently from men and boys. The traditional role of women in society, particularly with respect to management of the home and women’s role as carers, means that they often have a greater need in terms of access to water and sanitation services compared to men. And yet women and girls are often prevented from participating in decision-making related to their access to water and sanitation. Women’s generally lower economic and political power in comparison to men leaves them with reduced choices in how they access services. Female-headed households tend to be poorer and located in more precarious places, such as informal settlements or low-quality housing, compared to households that are led by two adults. This impacts the accessibility, quality, affordability, and acceptability of services available. The needs of menstruating women and girls are also seldom considered in the provision of services, particularly outside the home in schools or other institutions. The lack of access to adequate sanitation in the home, which often leads to people being forced to defecate in the open, has a different social and cultural impact on women and girls’ health and safety, due to their status within most societies. These factors directly affect gender equality and women and girls’ ability to enjoy their human rights.

Gender inequalities often stem from deeply entrenched customs and behaviors that tend to limit women’s participation in social and economic development. Using the lens of women’s rights, and human rights more generally, helps to understand, highlight, and correct inequalities in the access to water and sanitation experienced by women and girls. As Hillary Clinton so clearly put it over 20 years ago in Beijing, “It is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights…human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”1

Gender inequalities are exacerbated by other social and cultural inequalities based on religion, caste, class, or income. For example, in India, there is often discrimination regarding who is allowed to use public water and sanitation services. Women and girls of lower caste or women who are menstruating may not be permitted to use the same well as higher caste women, or must wait for others to finish using the well before they can fetch water. In the American city of Detroit, Michigan, recent disconnections from safe water services have been predominantly experienced by poorer and female-headed households, and by people of color.

There have been several reports in international news in recent years highlighting the danger of sexual assault to women and girls leaving the home to relieve themselves in fields or go to public toilets. In many cases, the accused get away with the crime, demonstrating not only a disregard for the individual who has been attacked but also a wider social and cultural disregard for women and girls. Women’s lives are fraught with danger simply for needing to fulfil a bodily function.

These issues impact women and girls globally, and will continue to so long as discrimination, inequalities, and stereotyping remain entrenched across societies.

While better access to water and sanitation will always lighten the domestic load, it will not be sufficient if women and girls still bear the bulk of the responsibility for these duties. Any approach to improving access to domestic water and sanitation services must also include a challenge to the stereotype of the woman or girl in the home and serving the family, rather providing images of women and girls fulfilling a broad range of social, cultural, and economic roles.

While there is no simple solution to improving the lot of women and girls and their access to water and sanitation, the human rights framework offers an analysis that reveals the structural causes of inadequate water and sanitation service provision, and offers very specific solutions that can contribute to improving the status of women and girls with respect to equal access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WaSH).

Legal Context and Developments

The human rights to water and sanitation have risen dramatically in importance over the last decade. In 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted a document that explained for the first time, how central access to water is for the right to health and the right to an adequate standard of living and, as such, should be considered as a right itself.2 This was followed by a statement on the right to sanitation in 2010.3 Since this time, huge progress has been made in defining, promoting, and implementing the human rights to water and sanitation.

Human rights were developed in order to protect vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed individuals and groups, but they also provide a useful framework for understanding, analyzing, and addressing the continuing lack of access to water and sanitation. In particular, the human rights principles of nondiscrimination and equality, participation, access to information, and accountability are key not only for the human rights to water and sanitation but also for realizing women’s rights more generally.

The UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and Human Rights

A grandmother shows off her new toilet in the Mukono District in Uganda.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for the integrated implementation of the entirety of the 2030 Agenda and put human rights principles at the center, with the rights to water and sanitation gaining a specific mention.4 The SDGs recognize the importance of human rights for eliminating gender inequality (Goal 5) and for reducing inequality in general (Goal 10). Within Goals 3 and 4 on health and education, there are also requirements to achieve gender equality. It is therefore both crucial and timely to be discussing how gender inequalities are limiting progress in social and economic development, specifically in the water and sanitation sectors, and how both gender inequalities and poor sanitation and water impact so many other development issues.

Increasing gender equality can only have a positive impact on access to water and sanitation for women, and vice versa. Greater gender equality leads to women and girls having a greater say in how services are delivered, improving the likelihood that services meet their various needs. Further, improving water and sanitation services for women and girls will improve gender equality, given the importance of water and sanitation to fulfilling traditional roles of women and girls. But this must be seen holistically; improving water and sanitation for women and girls without simultaneously challenging the stereotypical vision of women as caregivers will not lead to the gender equality demanded by Goal 5.

The human rights to water and sanitation include specific obligations for states, including the immediate obligation to ensure that human rights are realized in a participatory, accountable, and nondiscriminatory way, and a longer term obligation to progressively realize the human rights to water and sanitation using the maximum available resources. This demands structural changes that will require the reform of government institutions, but can also be achieved through political will and good governance, with the engagement of all stakeholders.

At the global level, the Sanitation and Water for All partnership is aligning all activities with the requirements of the SDGs, including those stemming from human rights norms and principles, in order to work towards eliminating inequalities in access to water and sanitation. Through a multi-stakeholder process, partnerships between states, and processes and systems that promote nondiscrimination, participation, access to information, and accountability, the Sanitation and Water for All agenda provides an opportunity to openly discuss with decision-makers and civil society the structural reasons for inequalities in access to water and sanitation and seek appropriate solutions. This is a long and challenging process. Neither human rights principles, nor a partnership that promotes open and transparent sharing of ideas, solutions, and challenges will work in isolation. But collective experience and a will to do things differently through dialogue and partnership can contribute to challenging the gender and other inequalities that currently exist.

Unpacking the Human Rights Principles to Promote Women’s Equal Access to WaSH

Nondiscrimination and equality are central to all international human rights treaties. They include extensive provisions to protect against discrimination and ensure equality, and require that the situation of women and girls is examined and addressed.

Inequality between men and women can be seen in every country, in every culture and religion, and within the majority of households. The gender roles held by women and men, and girls and boys, often contribute to the stigma, discrimination, and stereotyping that affects how people access water and sanitation in high-, middle-, and low-income countries.

The human rights to water and sanitation require that appropriate safe water and sanitation services are accessible and affordable for all, particularly for those who are marginalized and/or vulnerable. The lack of adequate access afforded to so many women and girls deepens other social inequalities. Women and girls who belong to minorities, such as the Roma in many European countries, or particular language groups in parts of Southeast Asia, will suffer from two-fold discrimination. Dalit women and girls are more likely to work as street sweepers (a specific euphemism for emptying bucket latrines at homes and offices in India)—and this leads to a significant stigma being attached to them. A lack of access for already stigmatized groups can directly lead to a lack of hygiene, increasing the stigma felt by those individuals and groups and reinforcing negative stereotypes.

Ensuring that girls have equal opportunities to receive an education requires many different approaches, including some very basic considerations such as access to adequate latrines in schools, so that girls can feel confident about spending a day in school. There is considerable work to be done in many countries on attitudes towards menstruation, and this is increasingly being tackled through raising awareness, not just among girls but also their male peers, in order to normalize menstruation through familiarity with the biological processes of the menstrual cycle.

Likewise, there is too little attention paid to conditions related to reproductive health, such as fistula, for which there is often a simple operation if it is caught early enough, but if not, often leads to distressing incontinence. Due to this lack of attention, and in combination with a lack of access to adequate water with which to wash regularly, women suffering from fistula are often abandoned by their families.5

Ministerial Dialogues at the Sanitation and Water for All High-level Meeting 2012.

Thus, the lack of access to water and sanitation suffered by many women and girls is frequently a symptom of broader inequalities within society. States must identify these inequalities and recognize the frequently more significant impact that a lack of these services has on the lives of women and girls. The next step is for states to review existing policies and legislation that may have an impact on women and girls’ ability to access water and sanitation. The solutions that work for women and girls may not be the same as those that are thought to be necessary to bring improvements to achieve universal access to water and sanitation. Thinking about the problem specifically for women and girls may well identify solutions that would otherwise remain hidden.

For example, in some countries, women are not supposed to use the same latrine as men, either due to menstruation, taboos, or cultural norms related to the status of women. This is currently hidden by most monitoring systems—it is assumed that having a toilet within a compound ensures that all people living there are using this toilet. To reach all residents, including the women and the girls, it would be necessary to find a different solution. One could be to build two toilets, or alternatively, it might be possible to enter into a dialogue with the community in an effort to overcome the taboos that necessitate two toilets.

As with many forms of discrimination and stigma, empowering women and girls through education and access to information, positive role models, and strengthening their ability to engage more broadly in cultural and social life assists them in confronting and challenging negative stereotypes about what women and girls are capable of—leading to further positive perceptions of their roles in society.

Legislation, policy, and regulation: Achieving gender equality requires a full review of the gendered impact of legislation, policies, and regulatory processes relating to access to water, sanitation, and hygiene to ensure that these are not inadvertently leading to discriminatory practices. Policies that acknowledge that women and girls play a predominant role in managing water and sanitation for the household may unintentionally reinforce this role, rather than finding ways of breaking down gender stereotypes that would have a stronger impact on achieving gender equality.

Changes in legislation must also be accompanied by measures that look to change institutions and social and cultural practices. Until states systematically examine how existing WaSH strategies impact women and girls, gender inequalities will remain firmly in place. Without this, states cannot meet their human rights obligations. Further, states must ensure that others, including private sector or civil society organizations, do not perpetuate inequalities through discriminatory practices. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women provides, in Article 5,  to “modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.”6

Access to information is a human rights principle, as well as a human right in itself. Information plays a crucial role in ensuring that people are able to understand what they are entitled to with respect to water and sanitation and how they can gain access to these services. Several factors impede women and girls’ adequate access to information on WaSH resources. These can include issues of illiteracy, of not understanding the language used, and exclusion from meetings where such issues are discussed.

A Kenyan girl drinks from an improved water supply at her school.

Ensuring that women and girls have the information that they need to access services and understand their rights requires both short- and long-term solutions. In the longer term, it is essential that girls have equal access to education, so that they can engage with the state in a meaningful way. In the shorter term, it will be necessary to work a little bit harder to ensure that women and girls are obtaining the information that they need in order to access services. This will include providing clear information in local languages. As women are often less literate than men, finding different ways of sharing this information will be necessary, such as targeted radio programs, local theatre, and posters that use simplified, gender-sensitive language and imagery.

Of particular interest to women and girls will be straightforward information on menstruation and menstrual hygiene to help them both understand and manage their periods better. Normalizing menstruation is a significant step forward for women and girls to ensure that they are able to continue going to school and work and engage actively in cultural and social activities.

Participation is essential to ensuring that women and girls are able to engage meaningfully in the decision-making processes that impact their access to water and sanitation.

In their role as the ‘second sex,’ securing opportunities for women to participate fully in relevant decision-making processes will require an examination of assumptions of who can participate and how participation is effected, to get beyond the norms that work best for men. For example, women’s lives are often circumscribed by their domestic responsibilities and their duty to care for children, the sick, or older persons within the household. This may prevent them from travelling longer distances to meetings or participating at times of the day when the domestic burden is greatest. If women’s views are to be taken into account, participatory processes must explore ways of getting around this.

Given the multiple layers of exclusion—women and girls with disabilities or from an ethnic minority will often have more problems engaging with decision-making processes—specific care must be taken that women and girls from all social and cultural groupings are able to participate.

An example of the effective inclusion of a marginalized group is the work done by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committees on preventing violence against sex workers in West Bengal, India. These regulatory boards are made up of doctors, advocates, national human rights commissioners, local politicians and officials, and sex workers themselves in a number of red-light districts, working towards addressing systemic problems experienced by the sex workers.7

It is now common practice to require that women form at least 50 percent of any water user committee, to ensure that women’s needs are taken into account in decisions made around the use of water resources. While this is an absolutely necessary step, care must be taken that this is not simply a cosmetic measure. Women must not be side-lined within committees, but truly enabled to engage with discussions on the same level as men, and not expected to represent the views of their husbands or other male family members.

Partners from Sanitation and Water for All’s six constituencies meet at biennial High-level Meetings.

Further, increasing the visibility of women as role models, such as women working as engineers or in other key sector jobs, can also have a positive impact on the acceptance of women as professionals and increase the institutional understanding of the difficulties that women and girls face within society.

We have seen the positive impact that a female champion for sanitation can have on the engagement of women and the prioritization of sanitation within a national political process through the appointment and engagement of Minister Maria Mutagamba in Uganda from 2006 to 2012, who is also a contributing author to this issue. The political leadership of women at the national level indicates the intention of the government to focus on women and girls, increasing the understanding of women and girls’ particular needs and given rights.

Accountability: States are accountable for the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation. This takes two main forms: 1. monitoring of access to services, institutions, policies, and legislation; and, 2. accountability systems put in place for those instances where governments are not addressing inequality in access to services.

  • Monitoring: As has been explored in the section above on nondiscrimination and the elimination of inequalities, it is difficult to address inequalities effectively unless the inequalities are known, and their root causes understood.  The root causes of gender inequalities are generally deeply embedded in culture and stereotypes of what men and women (and girls and boys) are allowed to do. For this reason, it can often be difficult to both identify and address inequalities, as they are often accepted as the norm. Household surveys often do not ask the right questions to identify these nuanced inequalities. More detailed surveys need to be carried out by culturally aware, trained individuals.  Some data, such as who is using latrines at a household level, may be difficult to collect accurately under existing monitoring systems—but efforts must be made to understand and measure discriminatory or stigmatizing practices. Only with the existence of better data is it possible to develop policies that are gender-sensitive and provide dedicated funding for gender-sensitive programming..
  • Access to justice: As inequalities in access to water and sanitation for women and girls are established through monitoring processes, access to justice must be available. This may be through complaints procedures managed by service providers or through independent bodies including regulators, national human rights commissions, and local authorities. While in theory, access to justice should be equally available to all people, the reality is that there are often hidden barriers that must be removed to ensure equal access to all. To remedy this, it is necessary to ensure that information about how to lodge a complaint is easily available in relevant languages. Service providers that are serious about responding to complaints will consider a range of measures such as free hotlines to call when there is a problem and focus groups that include a variety of users, with a particular focus on the engagement of women and girls.

Where service providers are not able to address specific complaints, there are also courts that can consider violations of the human rights to water and sanitation. Again, care needs to be taken to ensure that barriers to accessing courts are removed and take into account the particular difficulties faced by women seeking justice. In some countries, historically and culturally, women are not expected to speak out on their own behalf and would traditionally be accompanied by a man to court. Women’s domestic responsibilities and frequently greater poverty will also prevent them from paying the necessary fees, travel, and time costs to lodge complaints. Thus, focusing on the norms of behavior for women and girls, rather than the norms for men, will highlight approaches to assist women in achieving justice for failures of the state to ensure access to water and sanitation.

Final Thoughts

While changing national legislation, strategies, and policies will have the broadest impact on women’s rights in regards to WaSH in the long-term, local authorities, service providers, and other development actors can achieve a great deal locally by applying a gendered lens to their practices. Organizations such as Sanitation and Water for All, as a global multi-stakeholder partnership, can bring lessons from a range of different perspectives, contexts, and countries on addressing gender inequalities. These lessons will play key and catalytic roles in supporting efforts to fully eliminate gender-based inequalities through national laws, policies, and action.


  1. Clinton, HR. Speech, United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women (September 5, 1995).
  2. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. General Comment No. 15 on the right to water (E/C.12/2002/11). United Nations [online] (2003). http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/gencomm/escgencom15.htm.
  3. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Statement on the right to sanitation (E/C.12/2010/1). United Nations (2010).
  4. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (ARes/70/1). United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs [online] (2015). https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld.
  5. Bangser, M. Obstetric fistula and stigma. The Lancet 367: 535 (2006).
  6. General Assembly resolution 34/180, Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Article 5a). United Nations [online] (18 December 1979). http://www.un-documents.net/a34r180.htm.
  7. Crago, A. Our Lives Matter: Sex Workers Unite for Health and Rights (Open Society Institute, New York, 2008).

Catarina de Albuquerque

Catarina is the Executive Chair of Sanitation and Water for All, a global multi-stakeholder partnership that is working towards realizing SDG 6 of universal access to water and sanitation through concerted...


Virginia Roaf

Virginia is an independent consultant working on the practical implications of the human rights to water and sanitation for improving access to these resources for marginalized and vulnerable individuals...

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