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The next Water Action Agenda must be gender transformative

The first UN water conference since 1977 takes place next month – will it be a gamechanger for gender outcomes in the Water Action Agenda?

Sarah Dickin, Biljana Macura, Cynthia McDougall / Published on 21 February 2023
Women collecting water from a lake in Rajasthan, India.

Women fetching water from a lake in Rajasthan, India. Photo: hadynyah / Getty

The UN 2023 Water Conference that will take place this March in New York is the first to focus on water and development in nearly half a century. Formally part of a mid-term review of the International Decade for Action, “Water for Sustainable Development”, 2018–2028, this high-profile meeting aims to inspire action-oriented commitments from stakeholders at all levels.

Any commitments made as part of the Water Conference will be voluntary and will form the “Water Action Agenda” – innovative actions and approaches to solving water issues from infrastructure and business to human rights and access. The Water Conference will involve a series of five interactive dialogues covering different aspects of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.

What progress has been made in almost 50 years?

In 1977, the final report of the water conference held in Mar del Plata did not mention gender, but it highlighted the role of women related to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH): “In the field of community water supply and sanitation special emphasis should be given to the situation and the role of women” (UN, 1977). This 46-year-old framing and focus on “women’s role” in water management remains in practice to a certain extent in the water sector, but our understanding of gender inequalities has advanced – as have the opportunities for better outcomes.

Over the past decade, interest has grown in a perspective on gender that moves beyond only addressing the day-to-day material water needs of women. This perspective also avoids static and reinforcing framings such as “women’s roles”. Instead, it considers and seeks to address both inequitable power relations and the underlying structural factors that create and recreate inequalities in WASH.

One example from SEI research on women’s empowerment in WASH has found that women in Banfora, Burkina Faso often have less say in their households on WASH expenditure decisions compared to men. This meant they could have less control over the decision to invest in a household water connection, for example, to reduce the load of household water hauling that must be done (Dickin et al., 2021).

Structural factors that drive inequalities include informal aspects, such as constraining gender norms, as well as formal aspects. Women often remain seen as caregivers and water collectors and men as breadwinners, informally, and may live in systems where formal policies hinder women’s equal rights in any arena.

A perspective that grapples with these unequal power relations, norms and discriminatory policies is known as a gender transformative approach. Factors that intersect with gender are also important to consider. People may face many systemic, compounding disadvantages or barriers in WASH (and other areas of their lives) that go beyond gender.

Recognition is growing of the intersecting social factors that can lead to advantages or exclusions related to who can access WASH or control WASH resources; these are shaped in relation to gender intersecting with a range of social factors, such as ethnicity, caste and indigenous status (MacArthur et al., 2020). For example, researchers found that remote tribal communities in Sierra Leone were less likely to receive hand-washing hygiene awareness messages on the radio due to the costs of translating to local languages. Moreover, women within these communities were most at risk: as their husbands controlled household income, they were unlikely to be able to purchase soap and had greater exposure to pathogens in cleaning activities (Lanfer & Reifegerste, 2021).

How is the 2023 Water Conference shaping up in terms of its approach to gender?

The UN 2023 Water Conference includes links between SDG 6 and other SDGs across five interactive dialogues. The link to SDG 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment is part of the dialogue on “Water for Health”. Although the advance concept note for the dialogue does not indicate in-depth engagement with gender transformative thinking as a whole, the governance theme highlights the importance of “ensuring policies, regulatory arrangements, strategies and implementation models are inclusive and gender sensitive, allowing the meaningful participation of women in decision-making and governance, and leading to their social, political and economic empowerment.”

A gap here is the acknowledgement of underlying drivers such as harmful gender norms and unequal intra-household decision-making related to WASH, despite growing recognition of their importance for addressing gender inequalities. In addition, the decision to link SDG 5 to the “Water for Health” dialogue may reinforce the notion that “addressing gender” mostly relates to access to household drinking water and sanitation services. This framing overlooks the importance of addressing gender inequalities in other areas of the water sector, such as water-related businesses.

Unfortunately, the “Water for Development” dialogue engages only slightly with gender transformative thinking. For instance, one question posed for the dialogue is, “How do we acknowledge and build on the role already played by women as custodians of water in emerging markets?” The question instead should be about how to shift restrictive norms in many countries that hinder men from involvement with unpaid household work, such as water collection. Similarly, the “Water for Climate, Resilience and Environment” dialogue only mentions gender in terms of women being more at risk of water-related climate hazards.

Given these framings, the official conference dialogues are not shaping up to greatly advance thinking in terms of gender transformative approaches in the water sector. We hope, however, that gender equality and social inclusion issues will at least be addressed through voluntary commitments, and advanced through the interactive dialogues and discussions related to the Water Conference.

Drawing on the latest scientific evidence for SEI’s own contribution to the Water Action Agenda

Rectifying recent regressions in equality and advancing meaningfully towards SDG 5 will require gender transformative approaches at multiple scales and in multiple arenas, including within and through research for development organizations(McDougall et al., in press). As such, reflecting on SEI researchers’ roles in advancing commitments to gender equality and social inclusion, we are continuing to systematize an intersectional lens and increase our engagement with gender and socially transformative approaches.

This effort is part of a broader focus at SEI, through the Gender Equality, Social Equity and Poverty (GESEP) Initiative programme and our continuing research on human and environmental rights. A forthcoming guidance for SEI research will apply to a continuum of gender approaches. At one end of the continuum you have interventions that are gender exploitative, such as using a “good mother” campaign to increase hand-washing among women, while excluding men from any trainings. Around the middle of the continuum are gender accommodating approaches, such as improving access to WASH facilities but not tackling gender-based violence occurring at public sanitation facilities. Finally at the other end of the continuum you find gender transformative – strengthening women’s decision-making roles in WASH governance, for example.

Inspired by the UN Water Conference commitments to form the Water Action Agenda, the Sanitation and Health Team at SEI is developing our own commitments to applying a gender and socially transformative approach to our research and policy engagement related to WASH:

  • Design our research projects through an intersectional gender mainstreaming lens and include analysis of pathways for transformative change wherever possible
  • Seek to include a diversity of voices and experiences in our research and consider different axes of disadvantage when it comes to WASH
  • Incorporate gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) indicators in our research, including those that enable evaluation of the transformative impact of our activities and collect GESI disaggregated data
  • Be aware of and avoid framings or activities or communications that backslide into the familiar, gender-reinforcing focus on women and stereotypes of women’s roles, or the approach of women-only or women as responsible for WASH
  • Seek to scale gender transformative approaches internally by using iterative, reflexive approaches, and identify and engage with shifting internal social and gender inequities (within the team, partnerships, research processes, etc.), including their underlying norms.

The need for these commitments is evidence-based. We draw on our findings from a large systematic mapping of scientific research, recently published in BMJ Global Health. Our review collated evidence published over the past 10 years on GESI outcome themes, such as equitable use of WASH services, time use, participation, mental health and similar topics, from WASH interventions implemented in low resource settings (see evidence atlas for more information).

We categorized outcomes described in the literature as inclusive and transformative, similar to the gender accommodating and gender transformative points on the gender continuum described above. We did not include gender exploitative outcomes in our review. We found that only 42% of studies that included GESI outcomes had specifically reported on transformative outcome themes.

As inclusion in our review already required explicit GESI indicators of some kind, a large number of WASH studies were excluded at the start. Thus, we can say that a minority of WASH interventions currently evaluate transformative outcomes – the studies included in our review are only the tip of the iceberg.

Furthermore, only 22% of the interventions studied included gender mainstreaming components. Gender mainstreaming refers to examining the implications of intervention components for different genders and social identities, such as the design and included activities, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation, to ensure that they contribute to gender equality.  Of the interventions with GESI mainstreaming components, the majority targeted women and girls, with very few focused on other social groups or intersectional considerations – an important gap for future research.

We can’t wait 50 more years – the time is now for the water sector to contribute to gender equality

Looking ahead, Member States and other stakeholders at the 2023 UN Water Conference need to start incorporating gender transformative approaches into their work. For the past 50 years, the focus has been on ensuring the presence of water and sanitation infrastructure, rather than engaging with structural gender inequalities in the WASH sector. While infrastructure is important, it is not enough if gender inequalities prevent its use or fair deployment.

As a next step, the UN Water Conference interactive dialogue chairs should acknowledge structural factors and unequal power relations that constrain gender equality and social inclusion; often left unmentioned, the dialogues in March in New York could address these. With or without this shift in the dialogues, participants and organizations should make commitments as part of the Water Action Agenda that relate to gender and social inclusion, and they should ensure their activities are as transformative as possible.


Dickin, S., Bisung, E., Nansi, J., & Charles, K. (2021). Empowerment in water, sanitation and hygiene index. World Development, 137, 105158.

Lanfer, H. L., & Reifegerste, D. (2021). Embracing challenging complexity: Exploring handwashing behavior from a combined socioecological and intersectional perspective in Sierra Leone. BMC Public Health, 21(1), 1857.

MacArthur, J., Carrard, N., & Willetts, J. (2020). WASH and Gender: a critical review of the literature and implications for gender-transformative WASH research. Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development, 10(4), 818–827.

Macura, B., Foggitt, E., Liera, C., Soto, A., Orlando, A., Del Duca, L., Carrard, N., Hannes, K., Sommer, M., & Dickin, S. (2022). Systematic mapping of gender equality and social inclusion in WASH interventions: knowledge clusters and gaps. BMJ Global Health 2023;8:e010850.

McDougall, C., Elias, M., Zwanck, D., Diop, K., Simao, J., Galiè, A., Fischer, G., Jumba, H., & Najjar, D. (In press). Fostering Gender Transformative Change for Equality in Food Systems: A Review of Methods and Strategies at Multiple Levels. CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform Working Paper. Nairobi, Kenya: CGIAR Gender Impact Platform.

UN. (1977). Report of the United Nations Water Conference, Mar del Plata, 14-25 March 1977.

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