Water and Sanitation Crises Hit Women and Girls Harder than Men
A major burden of collecting water falls on women and girls.

Water and sanitation crises across the world affect women and girls more than men and boys, particularly since the responsibility to collect water in seven out of 10 households without individual water supply falls on the female family members. 

This is a key message in the latest edition of the joint WHO/UNICEF report on progress on household drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) 2000-2022 the first to provide a look at data from a gender perspective. 

The data conclusions dovetail decades of observations about the disproportionate impacts of unsafe and inaccessible water, sanitation and hygiene on women and girls.   

Globally, 1.8 billion people live in households without a source of water on the premises, the report finds. 

Women and girls, regardless of their age, bear a little over twice the burden of fetching water from sources outside their homes compared to men and boys. This leaves them with much less time to engage in education and employment, among other activities. 

In almost all the countries surveyed for the report, men and boys spent less than 10 minutes per day fetching water for such households, compared to 53 minutes per day for women and girls.  

Time spent by people fetching water.

Lack of access to sanitation and hygiene 

And if the lack of an on-site water supply eats into the time available for education or employment of women and girls, inadequate sanitation facilities makes their lives even more precarious. 

“Unsafe water, toilets, and handwashing at home robs girls of their potential, compromises their well-being, and perpetuates cycles of poverty,” said Cecilia Sharp, UNICEF director of WASH and Climate, Energy, Environment and DRR (CEED). “Every step a girl takes to collect water is a step away from learning, play, and safety.”

Proportion of world population having access to safely managed sanitation services as of 2022.

“Women and girls not only face WASH-related infectious diseases, like diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections, they face additional health risks because they are vulnerable to harassment, violence, and injury when they have to go outside the home to haul water or just to use the toilet,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO director for Environment, Climate Change and Health, about the reports findings. 

WASH and Sustainable Development Goals 

Access to safely managed drinking water around the world has improved from 69% in 2015 to 73% in 2022, with a sizable improvement in rural areas. However, 2.2 billion people worldwide still lack access to safely managed drinking water in 2022. 

If the world is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG-6), it has to accelerate progress by three to six times, the report pointed out. 

Accessibility to drinking water is closely correlated with the level of income in a country, it stated. 

In a high-income country, almost all households have access to safe drinking water on site, or within a 30-minute walk. In contrast, in low-income countries, less than a third of the safe drinking water sources are located within the premises of a household. And only half of households can access a safe drinking water source within a 30-minute walk.

Sanitation even further behind 

Progress on sanitation lags even further behind. 

Around 3.4 billion people across the world still lack access to what WHO and UNICEF define as a “safely-managed” sanitation point – which they both define as an improved latrine or better.  And while access to safe sanitation sources has risen in the past seven years from 49% in 2015 to 57% in 2022 – that’s still far behind safe water access. 

Open defecation continues to be a widespread practice in some 36 countries – with rates of 5%-25%. Among 13 countries, at least one in four persons regularly defecate in the open, including Chad (63%), Niger (65%), and South Sudan (60%) . 

The practice not only increases people’s risk of exposure to disease pathogens but also makes it difficult for women and girls, in particular, to maintain privacy and dignity, as well as making them vulnerable to physical, sexual, or verbal violence. 

Image Credits: Photo by Rifath @photoripey on Unsplash, UNICEF. WHO, UNICEF, WHO.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.