Academic journal article Rural Society

Gender and Water from a Human Rights Perspective: The Role of Context in Translating International Norms into Local Action

Academic journal article Rural Society

Gender and Water from a Human Rights Perspective: The Role of Context in Translating International Norms into Local Action

Article excerpt


Gender and water are linked in various ways, with roles, responsibilities, rights and privileges regarding water distributed differently between women and men. Out of the different water use domains, water supply is seen as specifically associated with women, who are traditionally and almost universally regarded as domestic water managers. Over the last few decades, their role has been attributed much dynamism, with an overwhelming emphasis on enhancing their involvement in the water sector from mere 'users' (beneficiaries) to 'managers' (actors), with increased choice and voice in the water management processes so that their access to and control over water resources can be strengthened.

Over the last three decades a global policy framework has emerged to increase the influence of women. The role of women as domestic water managers began to be officially recognised at the UN Water Conference, Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1977, prompting the UN to declare the decade of 1981-1990 as 'International drinking water supply and sanitation decade'. This has been followed by a move to promote women's participation in water resources management (ICF, 2001; ICWE, 1992; WWC, 2003).

These various international conferences have recognized water as a basic human need. Some have also gone further to affirm the right to water (UNESCO, 2006). The 1977 Mar del Plata Action Plan stated that all peoples have the right to have access to drinking water in quantities and of a quality equal to their basic needs (UNESCO, 2006). The recognition of water as a human right was mentioned in the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women, (CEDAW, 1979) and the Convention on Rights of the Child, (CRC, 1989). However, despite the various global efforts, 1.1 billion people in the world continue to lack sustainable access to safe water for domestic and personal use (UNDP, 2003). Worst affected among these are women who continue to face hardships as domestic water users and managers.

Consequently, the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the people without sustainable access to safe water by the year 2015 appears to be a formidable task. The right to water has been more explicitly and holistically recognized through adoption of General Comment No. 15 by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2002. The Committee emphasized the government's legal responsibility to fulfill the right and defined water as a social, cultural and economic good (UNESCO, 2006). The right to water has been recognized as a basic prerequisite for realization of several other human rights, including the fundamental rights to life food, self-determination, an adequate standard of living, housing, education, health, to take part in cultural life, to work and to be healthy (ECOSOC, 2002;.Scanlon et al. 2004; WHO 2003).

The human right to water entitles every woman and man to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. The General Comment acknowledges that while the adequacy of water may vary according to different conditions, the factors of 'availability', 'quality', and 'accessibility' are universally applicable. The dimensions of the latter include physical accessibility and nondiscrimination among others (ECOSOC 2002).

In recognition of women's role as domestic water managers, special attention is to be paid within the scope of this declaration to women as 'a group traditionally facing difficulties in exercising the right' (ECOSOC 2002). In appreciation of the genderspecific human rights norms and standards that recognize equal rights of women and men (Tomasevski, 1993; Goonesekere, 2008), the General Comment lays down the obligation of States Parties to guarantee that the right is enjoyed by both without discrimination and on the basis of equality between men and women. The States Parties are obliged not only to take steps to remove any de facto discrimination on prohibited grounds that could impede enjoyment or exercise of the right to water; but also to give special attention to women as individuals / groups who have traditionally faced difficulties in exercising this right and to take steps to ensure that the disproportionate burden they bear in collection of water be alleviated. …

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