The Weight of Water on Our Women’s Shoulders

The water crisis affects women of developing countries in a much more profound way than most from the West would understand. This article illustrates this in depth.

Updated: February 2, 2023
Pallavi Bharadwaj


March 08 is celebrated as International Women's Day (IWD) worldwide.

However, it is not a celebration if women and girls still have to walk miles to fetch their daily potable water. This year #IWD2020's theme is #EachforEqual.

Even after 25 years after the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), UN-Women's Executive Director, reports that no country has achieved equality for women and girls. Significant levels of inequality between women and men still persist. Critical areas of insufficient progress include:
  • access to decent work and closing the gender pay gap
  • rebalancing of the care workload
  • ending violence against women
  • reducing maternal mortality, providing menstrual hygiene access and realizing sexual and reproductive health and rights and 
  • participation in power and decision-making at all levels.
Water Sanitation and Hygiene Inequality Chart

Water Sanitation and Hygiene Inequality Chart

The above inequality is evident in access to Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) related issues too. Women and girls bear the brunt of spending unequal number of hours in collecting water for their households, enduring injuries and physical pains in doing so, and still not being able to get the water because they either are very pregnant or had just delivered, according to Sera Young, professor of anthropology and global health at Northwestern University.

A Dire Situation in India

Indian women water / public domain / pxhere

I witnessed first-hand some major discriminations and barriers when I set out to work on water supply and sanitation management projects in rural and urban India in the early 2000s. Sadly, to date women have to spend at least 15-20% of their household income to get their daily supply of water i.e. if they don't have to walk to the point source to collect that water.

In many developing countries, even if they are emerging economies like India, boys are expected to be in school, while girls are expected to lend a hand to their mothers for collecting water for potable usage. It is seen across urban and rural boundaries. India is unique as a district in India comprises of both urban and rural as well as peri-urban areas. In towns like Meerut in Uttar Pradesh state of India, the day of a woman and/or girl in a household, starts and ends with water.

During my work with Janhit Foundation (2003-06), I studied the Dabal Community, in an urban slum known as ‘Jai Bheem Nagar’. The findings were not only startling in terms of a public health crisis that the polluted water brought about but also heartbreaking because of the exploitation of women and girl child due to potable water scarcity.

They had to walk long distances every day making the girls skip school and spend the entire day carrying water loads from the point source to their households, so as to help their mothers.

Local grassroots organizations, such as the NEER Foundation, are now working at the forefront to bring clean potable water to this community with the help of International nonprofits, such as the Water Collective, US.

Women and Decision Making

women beach / public domain / pxhere

When it comes time to decision-making on where the point source or piped supply for water and wastewater shall be installed, how it'll be financed and in what duration, women still stay on the sidelines. In most cases, the men did not even care to respond back to me for my questions, but to my male colleagues.

It took me some time getting adjusted to the fact that I was the first-ever women team member of a very small grassroots nonprofits trying to cross through the gender barrier in a system, where women still covered their faces when a male member of their own family, other than their husband was present. The situation has hardly changed in recent times, as narrated by my friend and colleague in this Ted Talk titled " The Global Optics of Power". 

Women made great stride in gaining political power at district and municipal levels, while I was still working in India in 2006-07 on urban renewal programs, and continue to do so even today. However, more often than not, back then I found them looking up to their husbands for approvals and nods while making a decision or statement publicly.

Equal Pay for Equal Work

On average, women spend more time than men collecting, storing and protecting their water source. This takes their time away from the ability to learn, earn and contribute in other ways to their households, and ultimately to the society and economy.

Voss Chart

Voss Chart

In just one day, 200 million work hours are consumed, as women collect water for their families. This has graver consequences for the girls, preventing them from attending school or participating in other productive activities.

Some women have to walk about 3 miles to collect water on an average in not only the rural or desert states but also in the towns/urban slums. Collecting water can also be dangerous, especially for girls and women, who live in remote or war-stricken/conflict areas under the constant fear of abuse or attacks, using water as a weapon in wars, making them even more vulnerable.

Women and Discrimination

Across the globe, numerous barriers exist in the form of race, class, economic statuscaste and so on when it comes to access to WASH. Add gender discrimination to the mix and the situation turns even more complicated for women and girls. 

I read someone exclaimed that “Oh My God! If men had been carrying 50 liters of water on their heads every day for a lifetime, they’d have had handles on these containers 800 years ago”, while talking about the 
costliest water in the world.

women and inequality /

women and inequality /

According to, nearly 90% of their WaterCredit customers are women. Female participation in WaterCredit lending empowers women to become decision-makers while also enabling them to provide their families with the safety, dignity, privacy, and health benefits of having improved sanitation in or next to their homes.

It further builds its credit history to access additional financing for other needs and services. And's financial institution partners know that banking on women is great for both their financial and social bottom lines. 


March is an important month as the ‘World Water Day’ is also round the corner on the 22nd. If we do not address the issues of uninterrupted potable water supply to the girls and women worldwide, the marking of the International Women’s Day leaves a lot to be desired.

The effort of ridding the girls and women of this drudgery should be a conscious and continuous global effort and not be left only to a day or two in the month of March every year. Until then, we have a long way to go to achieve SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Thank you for taking the time to read our article on the effect water scarcity has on women. We'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section below.

Pallavi is Engineering for Change's WASH Correspondent. When not writing for E4C, Pallavi is a program, grants and project manager, consultant, and global development professional living in New York City. Her interests range from environmental causes to education, and her personal pursuits include entrepreneurship, food, travel and yoga. To read more of her articles on Gender and WASH, please click here. Connect with her on twitter and  LinkedIn. 

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Pallavi is Engineering for Change's WASH Correspondent. When not writing for E4C, Pallavi is a program, grants and project manager, consultant, and global development professional living in New York City. Her interests range from environmental causes to education, and her personal pursuits include entrepreneurship, food, travel and yoga.
Pallavi Bharadwaj
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