Water Security, Sanitation, and Hygiene

Women’s and girls’ access to sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene enables them to receive better health services, pursue their education, participate more fully in the economy, build their social capital, increase their dignity, and reach their full potential.

Sector Overview

As of 2020, an estimated one in four people lacks safe drinking water in their homes, nearly half the world’s population lacks safely managed sanitation, and three in ten people cannot wash their hands with soap and water at home. By 2050, more than 5 billion people will lack sufficient water at least one month per year, up from 3.6 billion today. Increasing water insecurity disproportionately impacts women and girls, including Indigenous women, who are the primary managers and users of the resource. These conditions compromise dignity, menstrual health and hygiene, and nutrition and create vulnerability to gender-based violence (GBV). Lack of access to water security, sanitation, and hygiene also affects women’s and girls’ educational and employment opportunities, physical and psychosocial health, and agency. 

Globally, women and girls are largely responsible for water collection in households due to inequitable division of household labor and a lack of agency. Poor sanitation creates additional care work and affects their health, safety, education, and livelihoods. Norms that target hygiene promotion exclusively to women add to their caregiving burden, perpetuate inequitable gender roles, and limit the positive health impacts of handwashing by excluding members of a household.

Improved water, sanitation, and hygiene in health facilities is a leading demand of women worldwide, but nearly two billion people use a health facility that has no access to water or sanitation. Approximately 540 million children attend schools without drinking water or basic sanitation, while 802 million cannot wash their hands with soap and water at school; this contributes to school-related gender-based violence, poor menstrual health and hygiene, absenteeism, and drop-out. Sex-segregated latrines are the global norm but may exclude gender-diverse individuals or put their safety at risk. These potential harms can be mitigated by including them in program design and implementation. Women and girls with disabilities may also find increased difficulty accessing or using water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities that are not designed with their needs in mind.

Women make up only 18 percent of employees in water utilities on average, both because of gender norms and legal barriers. This highlights an opportunity to improve both women’s economic empowerment and the capacity of service providers by creating job opportunities in the sector.

Promising Approaches

  1. Strengthen national, municipal, and local systems capacity to deliver equitable water and sanitation services, including through governance and financing reforms.
  2. Engage women and gender-diverse individuals alongside men in planning and managing inclusive water policies, programs, and institutions, and collaborate with water and sanitation service providers to improve their abilities to train, hire, retain, and promote women and other underrepresented groups.
  3. Collaborate with local organizations led by and for women and people who identify as LGBTQI+ to develop latrine design and location recommendations that increase accessibility, affordability, and safety.
  4. Work with national and local governments to incorporate universally accessible basic and safely managed sanitation requirements into laws, policies, regulations, and standards, and establish enforcement mechanisms.
  5. Provide puberty, menstruation, reproductive health, and menopause education and training.
  6. Support women and gender-diverse individuals to access credit and banking services needed to start their own water, sanitation, and hygiene products and maintenance enterprises.
  7. Support inclusive and accessible social and behavior change messaging on water, sanitation, and hygiene, and on confronting menstruation stigma and cultures of silence on menstruation.
  8. Raise awareness of the GBV risks associated with water, sanitation, and menstrual health and hygiene and provide training to Water Security, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WSSH) partners in GBV first-line response and referral.
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