The large and multidisciplinary literature on water for domestic use and gender has two primary foci: (1) the negative health and well-being impacts of inadequate access to safe water, and (2) the effects of women’s participation in water allocation and management decisions. These foci are reflected in both the research and policy literatures. Smaller bodies of work exist on water and social power, and on nonmaterial values and meanings of water. The term “gender” refers to the socially constructed roles and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and nonbinary people, but the literature on water and gender to date is mainly concerned with women and girls, on whom inadequate water access places a disproportionate burden.
The water and health literature during the Millennium Development Goals era focused overwhelmingly on the consequences of unsafe drinking water for child health, while paying less attention to the health of the water carriers and managers. Studies on women’s participation in water-related decisions in the household or community were (and to some extent remain) mixed with respect to their effects on equity, access, and empowerment. Both the health and participation strands often assumed, implicitly or explicitly, that water work was women’s work. Yet data on access was mainly collected and presented by household or community, with little effort to disaggregate access and use by gender.
In keeping with the spirit of the Sustainable Development Goals, the post-2015 literature has gone beyond a focus on infectious diseases to include the psychosocial stresses of coping with unreliable or inadequate water supplies. These stresses are acknowledged to fall disproportionately on women. A relatively small literature exists on the health impacts of carrying heavy loads of water and on the hard choices to be made when safe water is scarce. The negative impacts of inadequate domestic water access on girls’ education opportunities, on the safety of those who walk long distances to collect water, and on family conflicts have also been studied. Access is being defined beyond the household to prioritize safe water availability in schools and in healthcare facilities, both of which serve vulnerable populations. Both are institutional settings with a majority-female workforce. The definition of domestic water post-2015 has also broadened beyond drinking water to include water for cooking, sanitation, and basic hygiene, all of which particularly concern women’s well-being.
Intersectionality with respect to gender, class, ability, and ethnicity has started to inform research, in particular research influenced by feminist political ecology and/or indigenous values of water. Political ecology has drawn attention to structural inequalities and their consequences for water access, a perspective that is upstream of public health’s concerns with health impacts. Research on participation is being augmented with studies of leadership and decision-making, both within communities as well as within the water sector. Critical studies of gender, water, and participation have argued that development agencies can limit modes of participation to those that “fit” their larger goals, e.g., efficiency and cost-recovery in drinking water systems. Studies have also analyzed the gendered burden of paying for safe water, especially as the pressure for cost recovery has grown within urban water policy.
These are significant and growing new directions that acknowledge the breadth and complexities of the gender and water world; they do not simply call for gender-disaggregated data but attempt, albeit imperfectly, to take water research towards the recognition of gender justice as a foundation for water justice for all.