Skip navigation

Impact story: Gender in water and sanitation – empowerment by numbers 

Adaptation to water insecurity can create valuable opportunities to redress imbalances in decision-making power between men and women, or between different ethnic and socio-economic groups. But how do we identify those imbalances? And how do we measure success? When it comes to the issue of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), an SEI project in Burkina Faso is developing a new Empowerment in WASH Index that aims to do just that.

Date published
19 June 2018

This impact story was originally published in our 2017 annual report.

Different roles, different risks

“We don’t have enough water … What should we do?” This simple question encapsulates the dilemma faced daily by many rural women in Tenkodogo, Centre-Est region, Burkina Faso. While men often react to seasonal water scarcity by migrating to find paid work, women stay at home to keep the household and farm running, the family clean and fed.

They cope with water scarcity by, for example, strictly rationing household water use, giving up small side-businesses, or getting children to help collect water. Often the only available water comes from sources shared with livestock or contaminated with dangerous pathogens.

Water scarcity is likely to become an even bigger problem in the coming years, as climate change interacts with the region’s already volatile climate. That’s why organisations, like our research partner WaterAid, are working with communities and local authorities in the region to devise long-term adaptation plans.

These plans could alleviate much of the pressure on women. But they could also perpetuate existing inequalities and risks, if they do not take into account the different ways men and women experience and cope with water scarcity. In particular, if men and women are to have an equitable future, it is vital that women are given an equal say in the planning process.

Village women of Po return home from a community well. Photo: UN Photo / Ray Witlin, Flickr .

Understanding women’s WASH vulnerability

A project supported by a REACH catalyst grant aims to develop a research tool to explore and quantify women’s empowerment in relation to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

The first phase of the project included a research visit to Burkina Faso in 2017, to interview villagers and other stakeholders about the different ways men and women are exposed to WASH insecurity.

Among the initial findings, several stood out. Payment of water fees is usually considered men’s responsibility, while collecting water for the household is considered women’s work. Men often respond to water scarcity by migrating for work; while they send home remittances, they do not bear the day-to-day burden of coping with water scarcity. Water insecurity creates poverty traps, as it reduces income, and increases the likelihood of illness from using contaminated water supplies. And despite their day-to-day responsibility for water in the house, women are given little say in community-level or local authority decisions related to water and sanitation.

“A lot of WASH projects set out to look at gender empowerment, or promise certain results. This tool will be a way to actually quantify the outcomes, as well as to compare empowerment between different projects and countries.”
Sarah Dickin, Research Fellow, SEI

An index of empowerment

While these findings can directly help organisations like WaterAid to support community adaptation plans, they are also raw material for developing an Empowerment in WASH Index.

Inspired by IFPRI’s Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, the Empowerment in WASH Index will look at differences in, for example: decision-making power in the household and in the community; access to income; and time use, to quantify empowerment in a way that allows comparison over time and between populations.

The index will be co-developed with stakeholders from community up to national level and practitioner networks in Burkina Faso and Ghana during 2018.

The key route to impact of the Empowerment in WASH Index will be its ability to measure empowerment in a consistent, comparable way. This will be invaluable in project design, as well as in monitoring and evaluating the results.


Gender equality

SEI’s work explores the gender dimensions of vulnerability, and opportunities for women to play a greater role in shaping sustainable development. An SEI report to the UN highlighted the immense benefits that could be realised through addressing gender equality and the “overwhelmingly positive interactions with other Goals … Actions to improve gender equality can be important levers for the 2030 Agenda overall.”

SDG5 research connections. SDG5 is connected to SDGs 1, 3, 4, 6 and 8.

Connecting to the SDGs

This project in Burkina Faso has revealed one important way in which gender inequality can become entrenched. Equitable access to, and responsibility for, water, sanitation and hygiene (Goal 6) is essential if gender inequalities are to be overcome.

Addressing gender inequalities has co-benefits across the SDGs. For example, increasing girls’ participation in education (Goal 4) not only raises their economic prospects but also their perceived ability to contribute to decision-making. Girls’ education, and access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, reduces maternal mortality and the spread of disease (Goal 3).