Thursday, 21 March 2013

World Water Day 2013: What’s missing in MDG7 for women and girls?

By Lyla Mehta

Access to water and sanitation for all is central to achieving global justice for women and girls. 780 million people still lack access to drinking water, and sanitation remains seriously off track with 2.5 billion people lacking access to improved sanitation. Better access to water and sanitation facilities can reduce poverty and provide immediate health benefits for women and girls as well as better educational and economic opportunities and life chances. As debates on the MDGs – and what comes after them - abound, World Water Day 2013 offers a timely opportunity to look at the MDG goal on water and sanitation and what it means for gender justice.

Why do Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Matter?
Excess water in the household can be used by women for their kitchen gardens and can provide additional nutrition to diets, especially to children. Women and girls gain privacy and dignity through proper sanitation and menstrual hygiene facilities. It is now well known that poor sanitation facilities in schools prevent girls from attending school, especially during menstruation. Girls are also overburdened by time-consuming water collection activities. The lack of sanitation facilities exposes women and girls to violence and rape.

Water and Sanitation Targets: Achievements and barriers
Although the Millennium Declaration, adopted by 189 countries, was originally committed to issues concerning social justice and human rights, in reality the process that unfolded has largely been about tracking goals, targets and abstract numbers. This is also the case in water and sanitation where global declarations and targets often do not match with the on-the-ground realities of poor women and girls where at the local level a politics of power and control shape outcomes for poor people, especially poor women and girls.

Inadequate indicators and definitions
In March 2012, the world had met the water MDG of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water, well in advance of the 2015 deadline. This was a cause for celebration. However, the measurement of progress is by averages, which say little about regional variations and variations between socio-economic groups or by gender. Largely, the poor in remote rural areas and informal urban settlements have been by-passed but they are the most deserving.

The MDG definition of ‘improved’ sources does nothing to address issues concerning water quality and issues concerning operation and maintenance of the service. It does not acknowledge the time taken for water collection activities and the acceptable distance walked is up to one kilometre!  Cultural norms dictate that women and girls can spend between three minutes and three hours per day collecting water.  (Is it right for rural women and girls to be spending so much time collecting water in the 21st century?) In order to avoid the long trudge, women and girls often compromise and may collect water from sources that are less clean which can have knock on effects on their health and that of their family. 

Gender blindness has led to the MDGs ignoring critical issues relating to women’s interests at both macro and micro levels, including reproductive and sexual rights, and the importance of women’s access to land and productive water. The monitoring agencies all lack proper sex-disaggregated data making it impossible to monitor progress or devise gender sensitive policies. Data is essential if gender is considered to have any importance – to literally ‘count’.

Sanitation remains off track and there has been a tendency to ignore critical issues concerning sustainability. Constructing toilets does not ensure that they will be used, given prevailing socio-cultural norms and values. It is well known that in some parts of Africa, daughters-in-law will not use the same toilets as elder men and thus may require a separate facility. The targets and rewards systems that accompany sanitation programmes can often end up being a number counting exercise without ensuring long-term sustainability.

Looking forward
Even though water and sanitation were recognised as basic human rights in 2010 there is a considerable gap between rights talk and rights practice. Governments may not prioritise their national governments’ global commitments. Women’s participation in decision-making processes is often low and men continue to hold powerful positions in sector.  Women’s presence is often a requirement of the implementing agency but it can often be tokenistic or women and girls are made to devote their voluntary labour rather than have any clear influence or develop particular skills. Gender and other markers of identities mould allocation and access among users. In India, lower caste women (Dalits) continue to be considered ‘impure’ and are excluded from participating in programmes and indeed in using shared facilities. Disabled women all over the world are often doubly disadvantaged.  Accountability mechanisms for excluded women to demand their rights are weak throughout the world.

Current water and sanitation indicators to monitor progress are inadequate. They ignore gender dynamics, rights, equality, sustainability and equity concerns as well as regional variations.  It is encouraging that the post-2015 consultations and different working groups are focussing on these issues. There are also discussions to address intra-household inequality through disaggregating data by gender, age, health status, disability. Whether these issues stay on the agenda until the very end, is of course, up for grabs.

If human rights are included, new targets and indicators will also be set but equality can be  difficult to quantify. The new water and sanitation regime must avoid only focussing on the process of numbers and targets for these don’t capture the diversity of women’s choices and constraints and tell us little of local dynamics. Exclusion needs to be tackled head-on rather than to stop at the low-hanging fruit. Instead of asking who has gained access, we need to ask: who doesn’t have access and why? The strength of global action now needs to be measured in terms of rights, justice, inclusion and sustainability, as well as awareness of local contexts. This includes both local level action to higher-level ‘political will’ whilst drawing on and addressing the perspectives and interests of the poorest and most marginalised women.
This blog is based on a paper presented by Lyla Mehta at the 57th Session on the Commission on the Status of Women, New York, 6 March 2013.

Related links:
Commission on the Status of Women Session - including webcast
Shit Matters: The Potential of Community-Led Total Sanitation
STEPS Centre Water Domain