Global Resources

Women as agents of change in water: reflections on experiences from the field

Author: A. Bouman-Dentener
Publisher: UN Women
Publication Date: Jun 2015

The Women for Water Partnership (WfWP) currently includes 26 women’s networks covering around 100 countries, predominantly in the developing world. This publication pays tribute to some of the work of women’s organisations involved in the WfWP by qualitatively documenting some of the best practices displayed, and highlighting the specific contributions of women around the world toward the UN General Assembly mandated International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life 2005 - 2015.


The authors introduction explains the context the report in terms of the importance of studying the gender-water-sustainability nexus, Water for Life, and the status of water and sanitation as a human right. The majority of the report then consists of an examination of good practices from a number of case studies involving WfWP members around the world. Each of the case studies introduce the organisations involved, provide an outline of the situation, the role of the primary women’s organisations driving change, and their respective contributions to Water for Life, which together with the Dublin/Rio Principles for Integrated Water Resources Management, underline the central role of women in the provision, management and safeguarding of water. The case studies examined include women’s organisations cooperating in: efforts toward a transformative gender-water-sustainable development agenda in Tanzania; contributions toward the Protocol on Water and Health to the UNECE Water Convention in Armenia and Ukraine; the implementation of the human right to water and sanitation in Nepal; provision of social accountability of water provision in Kenya; sustainable water governance at Lake Victoria in Uganda; and empowering women in Nigeria through water and sanitation interventions.


Next, the role of women’s civil society organisations, and the value they add to sustainable development, is discussed, before the report identifies a number of lessons learned from examination of the projects. In terms of barriers to the meaningful participation of women in the water sector, the majority stem from either the direct and indirect difficulties of working in large, remote areas with limited access to water, or to where customary law is actively involved in water rights and the role of women in society. Cultural resistance to empowering women consumes time and effort to overcome, though drivers for change do exist, including: the introduction of gender equality legislation; strong political leadership committed to gender equality, as evidence by the catalytic effect of a gender-sensitive water minister in Nigeria; support by local communities themselves, which can be highly effective in changing mind-sets; and the use of peer networks that can provide support, training, coaching, and backstopping. Small scale projects that account for cultural differences are often more successful than large scale projects, but scaling-up these projects is an intensive and difficult task due to geographical scale, and a perpetual challenge of under-funded women’s organisations.


The report finishes with a section on conclusions and recommendations for women-inclusive water cooperation, including that:


  • A human rights based approach is required to ensure effective cooperation between all stakeholders in the water sector.
  • Institutional mechanisms guiding water cooperation need to be strengthened, including the establishment of clear definitions of roles and responsibilities, and the strengthening of complementary partnerships involving different skill-sets.
  • Civil society groups can and should reach, empower, represent, and/or defend vulnerable groups through awareness raising, coordinating action, monitoring, increasing women’s capacities, and acting as a bridge between governments and citizens.
  • In order to deliver on water-related SDGs, there is a need for targeted investments to scale-up the capacities of women’s civil society organisations.
  • There are four prerequisites to enable meaningful engagement with women: governments willing to involve women in decision-making, backed by legislation, policies, and regulations; for decision-making to be inclusive and based on equality in terms of rights and responsibilities; an enabling environment that sets forth clear potential for results through women’s participation; and investment in the social capital of women’s organisations to facilitate community involvement, and that makes the best use of women’s skills and leadership.