Beyond inclusion: Moving forward a feminist water agenda on International Women’s Day

A feminist water agenda calls urgently for a reorientation against deep-rooted institutional biases, assumptions and structures of power.

By Deepa Joshi and Alan Nicol 

International Women's Day 2024

A year after the 2023 UN Water Conference in New York City the growing water crisis is frequently cited as a measure of the climate emergency we’re in. At the same time, there is less noise about the climate emergency as a global gender crisis—which it is fast becoming. Could this be because the sector remains male-dominated, where power, politics and masculinity combine to dominate decision-making environments? A feminist water agenda seeks to tackle these entrenched imbalances.

A recent World Bank study reveals that only 20% of water sector jobs across the Global North and South are held by women. What these numbers also reveal is that very little work has been done to transform the structure of water institutions. It is hardly surprising then that these institutions tend to identify technical fixes and prescriptive economic solutions as ways of addressing increasingly complex water challenges. Deeply-embedded inequalities in access to, use of and control over water that are central to the growing crisis are frequently overlooked. How, then, can we systemically address these more structural inequalities in order to tackle the growing climate-gender crisis?

Climate change amplifies existing gender inequalities

For 50 years or more, international declarations have emphasized how water matters urgently to women, particularly in poorer communities. Yet half a century later, 800,000 women still lose their lives every year to water-related challenges. Women in Sub-Saharan Africa continue to spend a staggering 40 billion hours annually fetching water, the equivalent of some five billion working days lost. In simple terms, and based on a metric of $2 a day, that’s about $10 billion in lost earnings (and economic power).

Global Early Warning Tools demonstrate that in the face of climate impacts millions of women and girls face disproportionate water risks from both increased droughts and floods. The knock-on effects of these challenges will be disastrous across many SDG indicators. An hour’s increase in time spent by young, marginalized girls collecting water, for example, can result in a 17% decrease in their probability of completing primary school, blocking their future development. Tools like the Individual Water and Security Experience Scales (IOWAS) capture how water insecurity affects not just women’s labor, time, energy, nutrition and opportunities for social and economic growth, but also their psychosocial health.

Why we need a feminist water agenda

Globally, marginalized women disproportionately bear the brunt of an increasingly disrupted hydrological system. A feminist water agenda places these gendered water challenges at the core of water investments, innovations and interventions. This includes challenging and changing social norms that leave women solely responsible for household water access yet largely exclude them from decision-making in public life. 

In feminist terms, we see three basic challenges that are key barriers to inclusive water systems. Firstly, despite the focus on gender in water supply and sanitation since the 1980s, there has been little to no change in the socialization that makes women responsible for domestic water access and use. Engaging ‘women in water’ while ignoring the root causes that make them responsible for water provision in increasingly challenging contexts has been costly for women and will be increasingly so in a more climate-disrupted world.

Secondly, the focus on gender in water has largely been restricted to water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Women’s roles in water for production, and the health and nutrition implications of these interlinkages are still poorly understood. Such blind spots persist because ‘water knowledge is largely (still) written from the center’, and from a viewpoint dominated by men. The fact remains that the various challenges marginalized women face in relation to water for not only domestic but also productive uses are poorly matched by the technical and financial solutions presented by water experts.

The third and final issue is the fact that addressing gender and social inclusion is erroneously understood to be simply about ‘engaging’ or ‘targeting’ women. A feminist agenda calls for turning things around and aligning policy, interventions and innovations with the everyday water insecurities of marginalized women. In other words, changing the dominant viewpoint around water towards a feminist water agenda recognizes these challenges, identifies water as part of the global commons embedded in social and cultural systems, and moves beyond water simply being engineered for economic efficiency and productive output.

A forthcoming special issue on a feminist water agenda explores many of these issues, including the deep institutionalization of masculinity in the water sector and its consequent impacts. It also looks at how a feminist water agenda is not just about women, and how the transformative change process benefits all. Two papers from Nepal show that strategic policy reforms are a good first step, but centuries-old practices of gender inequalities and social exclusion require a thorough rewiring of overtly masculine cultures of water institutions. These challenges are universal. Another paper shows how in the absence of more inclusive policies and interventions, women in Kenya are left to navigate complex social networks in patriarchal norms and cultures, including in formal and informal rights to land and water. Changing this situation starts with doing research differently, because the water (in)securities and inequalities that we see on the ground can be mirrored in how knowledge, research and policy partnerships operate and materialize. A final paper presents research from Indonesia and asks for a more critical insight on impact, presenting a framework for designing research into evidence for social justice.

Moving from rhetoric to action

A key learning point from the special issue is that despite calls for systemic and transformative change, the water sector still tends to reward quick-fix technological solutions. Tackling practical challenges relating to gender and water, important as they are, rarely disrupts the systemic masculinities of power within institutions that repeatedly determine water outcomes. In sidestepping the more systemic, structural changes required to enable fundamental shifts in who makes decisions, for whom and how, we all become complicit in enabling the existing order to continue.

A feminist water agenda calls urgently for a reorientation against deep-rooted institutional biases, assumptions and structures of power. At a minimum this requires reflection and learning on what is not working or, indeed, does (more) harm in the current climate crisis. Then building on this enhanced knowledge we need to move to prioritizing changes in power relations. Without these changes, repeated promises of ‘water for all, putting the last first, leaving no one behind’, etc. will remain simply rhetoric without substance. And, with that, gender inequalities will become even more entrenched and extreme.

About the authors

Deepa Joshi is a Gender, Youth and Inclusion Lead Specialist at IWMI.

Alan Nicol is a Principal Researcher – Politics of Water, Climate Change and Migration at IWMI.


International Women's Day 2024

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