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Women still under-represented in water resources management despite progress

While the role of women in managing water resources has been recognised by the United Nations since 1992 as being of central importance, a new report published September 16 shows progress has been slow and the management of this vital resource is still male-dominated.

The report by Global Water Partnership (GWP) found that gender mainstreaming in water resources management goes beyond the issue of the integration of women.

Gender mainstreaming is about fully integrating all gender perspectives (differences in needs, uses and practices, employment and entrepreneurship, access to resources, vulnerabilities and impacts, adaptation and mitigation capacity of men, women, and non-binary individuals) in water planning, management, and decision-making, the report said.

“Half of all countries reported limited or no achievement of gender objectives in their water management policies and plans,” said Darío Soto-Abril, executive secretary of Global Water Partnership (GWP), one of the agencies involved in the data collection. “While some reasons for this low number might be a lack of robust data collection and monitoring tools, the number is still low enough for us to say: it’s past time for things to change.”

According to the report, gender mainstreaming in water resources management goes beyond just increasing women’s representation in councils and committees or creating a new general legal framework on gender protection, although those actions may be necessary; it is mostly about integrating gender issues in all policies in a cross-cutting manner, linking water and other relevant policy areas. This also supports the achievement of SDG 5 – achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

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“It is also about integrating gender issues in all policies in a cross-cutting manner, linking water to other relevant policy areas,” said Liza Debevec, Senior Gender and Social Inclusion Specialist at GWP.

In many developing countries, women are the de facto water decision-makers in households. Research suggests that when women are involved in the management of water resources, their communities achieve better economic and environmental benefits. As the world’s population grows and climate change intensifies water scarcity, women are key to providing more sustainable access to this finite resource.

Nigeria scored 40 percent in gender mainstreaming on the index and while that is evidence of progress, Soto-Abril, in an interview with BusinessDay said more still needs to be done to move the strategies to concrete actions.

“More decisive action is needed by leaders, more action with policies and implementing them and also allocating resources towards this goal,” Soto-Abril said.

Soto-Abril recommended new policies to deepen education and advocacy and these are roles that can be played by the media, civil society and multilateral agencies.

The starting point for the study was the results of the 2017 baseline survey on SDG 6.5.1, completed by 172 countries, which showed that the gender-related questions were among the least advanced among all aspects of IWRM.

The study also drew upon the 2020 country responses to the survey, which showed that the global average score for the gender-related question had risen from 44 out of 100 in 2017 to 54 out of 100 by 2020, revealing definite progress, although clearly much more needs to be done.

For countries with good strategies, the report said that while such strategies are without doubt required, merely having a strategy does not necessarily translate to significant progress, as evidence has revealed a clear gap between these policies and practice.

Such strategies are not always accompanied by concrete action plans, nor are they adequately funded; measures and mechanisms are often not fully implemented, and data collection and monitoring and evaluation processes may not always be sophisticated and disaggregated enough to reveal the true gender and inclusion power dynamics occurring within a water resources management context.

“One of the most important changes countries can make is to enable women to participate at all levels in decision-making about the use of water resources. This has to be a commitment at the highest political level and backed up with actions,” said Soto-Abril.

Joakim Harlin, Chief, Freshwater Ecosystems Unit of UNEP, noted, “If there is good news, it’s that there’s been a slight improvement compared to the baseline in 2017. We should also make clear that countries doing well in gender mainstreaming can be found all over the world and in all income categories. The ability to integrate gender considerations in water policies is not related exclusively to levels of development – it’s also a question of having the political will to change cultural norms.”

The report showcases a range of practices on how countries have advanced women’s participation in water management and provides recommendations on how to replicate and upscale those practices, seen through the lens of seven enablers.

Until these goals are realised, photographs of women walking down dirt roads with jugs of water on their heads – cast in roles as water carriers instead of water managers – will not yet be a thing of the past any time soon.

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