Thursday, 8th March was International Women’s Day, and people around the world gathered to celebrate the political, social, and cultural achievements of women. While International Women’s Day is a moment to celebrate the triumphs of women, it is also the time to consider persistent challenges facing women around the world.

One of these pressing concerns is the unequal burden of climate change and environmental security that the world’s poorest women face. Indeed, a recent United Nations study revealed that climate change affects women harder than men.

Going to the source of inequality

Conflict and disenfranchisement due to water scarcity is a pressing global threat associated with the changing climate. Globally over 660 million people lack access to clean water. Access to this resource is unequally divided among ethnic, class, and religious lines. Already, water scarcity is regarded as a central cause of the conflicts in Darfur, Sudan and in the ongoing civil war in Syria.  

Water scarcity has strong implications on the fight for gender equality, too. In the most disadvantaged communities, where women often see the fewest opportunities for employment and social mobility, the task of fetching water is disproportionately carried out by women and girls.

Rwanda woman irrigation hose

Who’s got water now? (Credit: Alan Whelan/Trócaire)

In many rural places in the developing world, the demand for women to gather water (in addition to other time-consuming tasks with or without the aid of technology) results in considerable time and energy expended. On average women and girls in rural areas of developing countries travel 6 km per day to seek water. In a recent UN estimate, women and girls in low-income countries spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water, equivalent to a year’s worth of labour of the entire workforce of France. The study didn’t mention if French strikes were included in the calculus.

In Tanzania, school attendance for girls is 12 percent higher in communities with water access within 15 minutes from the home, in comparison to water sources that are an hour or more away. Thus, water scarcity and successful woman empowerment are negatively correlated, as the former imposes a forbidding physical burden on the personal and professional development of women.

The weight of the world

Women carrying heavy loads can experience physical trauma, and pregnant women risk graver health issues. Women, and especially girls responsible for gathering water from communal sources are also at greater risk of assault and harassment.

The health and wellbeing effects of the world’s poorest women needing to gather water for households is a troubling concern. Yet, too often, policy-makers do not acknowledge the deeper social implications of this burden on women. Women do most of the labour to provide water for household needs while men are mostly controlling its management. This is intrinsically problematic. Water scarcity has disproportionate adverse effects on women in comparison with men. This is part of larger societal inequalities that influence gender norms, political voice, and constructs about tasks and labour. Issues regarding access to water scarcity should therefore be interrogated within the broader framework of gender inequality, mindful of specific localised dynamics.

Water for women and women for water

Two women at a loom in Madagascar

A woman and weaving girl at a loom in Madagascar. (Credit: Net Positive Impact)

The discussion of gender needs to be mainstreamed into the water management question. Seeking solutions to water shortages in rural locations in the Global South without considering the nuances of gender will do little to advance the status of women in developing societies. The UN has Sustainable Development Goals that recognise the need for a broader framework that includes gender equality as a goal. This brings the discussion of gender to the forefront of discourse on global challenges.

The UN has published a resource guide on mainstreaming gender in water rights. In it, recommendations are made that water should be viewed as more than just a resource, but rather as an environmental, social, and economic good.

Such a paradigm shift leaves room for more consideration of gender as a factor. For example, the rights of women to own land, and thereby have a stake in water rights is an important object in fighting for gender equality in the developing world. This integration of societal, environmental and economic approaches is bringing results.

A multi-faceted approach to a sustainable world

UN Goals of Sustainability

Goal 5. It’s as simple at that.

The most successful programmes of sustainable development pay specific respect to larger, institutionalised forms of inequality. Targeting women’s equality as a root of environmental pressures can yield successful results. Women have taken a seat at the table through water-related income-generating and property ownership opportunities. United Nations programmes, like Watersheds and Gender, take a proactive approach to ensuring greater involvement in water management. Women train other women to become community promoters and managers of small-scale water companies. Through participation, women have acquired technical agriculture and water management knowledge. Thereby, women have achieved greater agency and societal participation.

Communal shareholding of water resources as a distribution method has also brought some results, enhancing the social structure and cementing democratic process at local levels.

A way forward to ensure sustainability – both social and environmental – can come through empowering women and considering the role gender plays in water conflict and water rights. There has been progress in the public debate to identify intersecting challenges of women’s rights and environmental threats. Unless the rights of women are tangibly fulfilled in places facing environmental threats, their exposure to risk will remain disproportionately higher.

Understanding the specific burden of climate change on women is essential both to find solutions on an environmental level, but more importantly to create a broader sustainable society which shares the burdens of climate change and provides fair access to resources to every member of society. Until then, we won’t be able to say we have attained true gender equality.

Four bold women fighting for equality

From the Pretoria Women’s March of 1956. 60 years later and the fight must go on. (Via South African History Online)