In a groundbreaking analysis of global gender inequalities in access to drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), a report released today by UNICEF and WHO paints a distressing picture of the burden borne by women and girls.
The report, titled "Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) 2000-2022: Special focus on gender," reveals the stark reality that women and girls are overwhelmingly responsible for fetching water in seven out of ten households lacking access to water supplies on their premises.
The report highlights the alarming disparities between genders when it comes to water collection. Globally, women are most frequently tasked with this essential chore, while girls are nearly twice as likely as boys to carry the burden. Moreover, girls spend more time each day fetching water, further compromising their education, well-being, and safety. Cecilia Sharp, the Director of WASH and CEED at UNICEF, emphasises the detrimental effects of this situation, stating, "Every step a girl takes to collect water is a step away from learning, play, and safety."
The consequences of inadequate access to WASH extend beyond the physical exertion of collecting water. The report reveals that women and girls are more likely to feel unsafe when using toilets outside of their homes, exacerbating the gender gap in safety and hygiene. These challenges perpetuate cycles of poverty and hinder progress toward universal access to water and sanitation. Recognising the urgency of addressing girls' needs, Sharp underscores the importance of integrating gender considerations into WASH programs, aiming for gender equality and empowerment.
The report's findings underscore the extent of the global water crisis. Currently, 1.8 billion people live in households without water supplies on the premises. Among these households, women and girls aged 15 and older bear the primary responsibility for water collection in 7 out of 10 cases, whereas their male peers are responsible in only 3 out of 10 households. Even more concerning is that girls under 15 are more likely than boys under 15 to fetch water, with 7% of girls compared to 4% of boys performing this arduous task. These gender disparities result in longer and riskier journeys for women and girls, further compromising their education, work, and safety while exposing them to physical injuries and dangers along the way.
The report also sheds light on the detrimental effects of shared sanitation facilities on women's and girls' privacy, dignity, and safety. More than half a billion people worldwide still rely on shared toilets, exposing women and girls to increased risks of sexual harassment and violence. Furthermore, inadequate WASH services pose health risks for women and girls and limit their ability to safely manage their periods. The report reveals that women and adolescent girls in the poorest households and those with disabilities are most likely to lack a private place for washing and changing.
Dr Maria Neira, the Director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at WHO, emphasizes the dire consequences of inadequate WASH, stating, "Women and girls not only face WASH-related infectious diseases, like diarrhea and acute respiratory infections, but they face additional health risks because they are vulnerable to harassment, violence, and injury when they have to go outside the home to haul water or just to use the toilet."
While the report acknowledges some progress towards achieving universal access to WASH, significant challenges remain. Between 2015 and 2022, household access to safely managed drinking water increased from 69% to 73%, safely managed sanitation increased from 49% to 57%, and basic hygiene services increased from 67% to 75%. However, reaching the Sustainable Development Goal target for universal access to safely managed drinking water, sanitation, and basic hygiene services by 2030 will require a substantial acceleration of progress.
The report also underscores the disproportionate impact of inadequate access to hygiene on women and girls. With domestic chores and caregiving responsibilities falling primarily on their shoulders, women and girls face increased health risks due to limited handwashing practices. Additionally, the time spent on domestic chores limits girls' opportunities for education and employment.
Despite some progress in achieving universal access to WASH, the report stresses the urgent need for accelerated action. Between 2015 and 2022, there have been modest improvements in household access to safely managed drinking water, sanitation, and basic hygiene services. However, achieving the Sustainable Development Goal target for universal access to WASH by 2030 requires significantly increased rates of progress.
To address these challenges, the report emphasises the importance of integrating gender considerations in WASH programs and policies. Disaggregated data collection and analysis are vital for informing targeted interventions that address the specific needs of women, girls, and other vulnerable groups.
As the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) report reveals, achieving universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene is an urgent priority. With 2.2 billion people lacking safely managed drinking water at home, 3.4 billion people without safely managed sanitation, and 2 billion people unable to wash their hands with soap and water at home, concerted efforts are necessary to ensure a safe and healthy future for all.
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