Header image for news printout

Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation at the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council

6 September 2016

Gender and the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation

In my thematic report, I have focussed on gender dimensions in realizing the human rights to water and sanitation. Gender equality is a fundamental human rights principle, yet inequalities between men and women, and on the basis of gender identity, are observed in all countries. This not only translates into unequal enjoyment of the rights to water and sanitation, but it leads to unequal opportunities and serious violations of other human rights, including the right to health, adequate housing, education, food, and work.

Gender inequalities are profound in the water and sanitation sector. Tackling them requires addressing structural, social, economic and cultural discriminatory patterns. Moreover, achieving equality in safe, available, accessible and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene can serve as an entry point to ensure that women and girls enjoy their right to have and make choices, their right to have access to opportunities and resources, and their right to control their own lives, both inside and outside the home.

In my report I therefore outline several areas that require particular attention, in order to prevent and respond to gender inequalities in access to water and sanitation. Allow me to address a few key issues:

Gender inequalities related to water, sanitation and hygiene are pervasive, and occur at every stage of a woman’s life – through childhood, adolescence, parenthood, illness and old age. There is a pressing need to ensure that women and girls, throughout their whole life cycle, have the same chances, opportunities, as well as possibilities to live a healthy and self-determining life.

Furthermore, it is important to understand the variety of situations in which women live and the different challenges and barriers they face in accessing water, sanitation and hygiene: Examples include when women lack water and sanitation and at the same time suffer from poverty, live with a disability, suffer from incontinence, live in remote areas, or lack security of tenure.

Particular attention must also be paid to gender inequalities when they are associated with social factors - such as caste, age, sexual orientation and gender identity. International human rights law requires that special attention be given to those persons most disadvantaged in the enjoyment of their rights. States must therefore develop intersectional policies, given that gender-based inequalities are exacerbated when they are coupled with other grounds of discrimination and disadvantages.

Worldwide, outside of the home there are often more sanitation facilities that are adequate for men’s needs than for women’s. Sanitation facilities available for women often do not only require a user fee, but rarely meet the needs of women and girls. They may not be suited to manage menstruation or may not reflect the requirements of those with special needs – for instance, because of old age or disability. This general lack of adequate facilities often leads to women and girls avoiding the public life, and the lack of facilities in public institutions sometimes makes it impossible for them to go to work and to school – especially during menstruation.

Human rights law requires that sanitation facilities be reliably accessible to satisfy all needs throughout the day and the night. States must ensure that water, sanitation and hygiene facilities are available everywhere where people spend a significant amount of time: including in schools, hospitals, at work, market places, places of detention and public spaces like public transport hubs. And ensure that the specific needs of women and girls are incorporated into the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of these facilities.

The fact that water, sanitation and hygiene facilities may not meet women’s and girls’ needs is in large part due to the absence of women’s participation in decision-making and planning. Participation is not only a fundamental human rights principle – it is also the only way for women and girls to ensure that their needs are understood and prioritized, including on material and privacy requirements for menstrual hygiene management. In many cases, they do not participate in developing policies or designing the type of facility that will be best suited to their needs or easiest for them to use, even though women and girls are primarily users and responsible for maintaining them.

The meaningful participation of women must be fully integrated in laws and regulations, and in initiatives by non-State parties. It is important to point out that rules on paper regarding participation are not sufficient: in reality, when women do participate, their actual influence on the governance of water and sanitation may still be very limited due to social norms. States and development initiatives must actively identify, acknowledge and remove barriers to meaningful participation.
States must further apply a gender analysis and increase women’s participation in the formulation of government budgets to water, sanitation and hygiene.

Socioeconomic differences and sociocultural practices and stereotypes may exacerbate gendered differences. Concretely, this often results in discrimination in terms of who enjoys human rights.

Practices and beliefs are different in every culture, but menstruation is generally considered to be something unclean and girls grow up with the idea that menstruation is an embarrassing event that one should hide and not speak about.  A lack of knowledge by both women and men reinforces the taboos on this topic, leading to serious health issues and far-reaching consequences for society as a whole. Take, for example, notions of “female modesty” and masculinity; as well as stereotypes concerning gender-assigned roles, such as those that designate women as caretakers. Such constructs translate into unequal opportunities and unequal control over resources. Education, awareness-raising and training are important ways to address this problem. Moreover, it is not only girls and boys, but also teachers, government officials, community-based health workers and development staff who must be informed on menstruation and its management.
States cannot dismiss stereotyping and stigma as a social phenomenon over which States have no influence. Instead, they must actively combat practices that are based on harmful stereotypes of men and women, including in the private sphere.
States should also increase collaboration between entities operating in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector and those operating in other sectors, including the health sector, to address gender inequalities and taboo topics more effectively and comprehensively.

These socio-cultural norms, stereotypes and stigma are at the root of very unequal power relations, of sexual harassment and of violence. Women fear violence by men in public toilets and open defecation sites, and on their way to both. It also occurs at places to collect water, bathe and wash clothes. In addition to risking physical violence, women and girls may also experience sanitation-related psychosocial stress, including fear of sexual violence. Gender-based violence infringes the right to life, personal safety and freedom of movement.

Through promotion of awareness-raising campaigns, education programmes and discussion groups for example, States can encourage the transformation of both men’s and women’s perceptions of gender roles. Gender-based violence must be prevented and investigated, and those responsible must face proper legal action, in order to break patterns of societal acceptance of exclusion and violence based on gender norms. Recognizing that young people may grow up to be change makers, curricula in all schools should challenge gender stereotypes and encourage critical thinking.

The final point I would like to highlight is the crucial importance of monitoring progress towards achieving the human rights to water and sanitation in a rights- and gender-sensitive manner, including in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals. Gender equality and empowering women and girls are central to the Sustainable Development Agenda. It is reflected in a standalone goal and is part of the goal related to the access to sanitation for all. Filling the existing data gap should be a priority and data need to be disaggregated by sex and other relevant factors. These are necessary to assess the impact and effectiveness of policies and programmes that aim to mainstream gender equality and enhance women’s enjoyment of their human rights. A special focus must be on the monitoring of progress for women and girls belonging to marginalized groups, or living in marginalized areas.

It is important that measuring progress in the gender equality dimension of the rights to water and sanitation is not based on global monitoring and on the use of quantitative data only. Context-specific studies, using qualitative methods, that capture the intersection of gender inequalities in the enjoyment of other human rights are key to understanding and developing improved policy responses.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize that root causes of gender inequalities in the enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation are complex and context-dependent. Progress towards substantive equality in access to water and sanitation therefore requires public action on different fronts. States must develop and implement gender-responsive policies, budgets and regulations that address women’s and girls’ specific needs. In order to attain substantive equality, it is moreover necessary to address the specific gendered circumstances that act as barriers to the realization of those rights for women and girls in practice. This includes supporting and developing approaches that challenge social norms; stereotypes and intra-household patterns that act as such barriers.
Let me now move onto the three country missions I conducted in 2015 and the first semester of 2016. Firstly, I would like to highlight that in all these missions I received full support from the governments and relevant stakeholders. That was key to ensure a proper assessment of the situation of the human rights to water and sanitation in the countries. I would like to reiterate my sincere regards to the three governments.


I visited Tajikistan from 4 to 12 August 2015.

Tajikistan is known as a water champion at the global level, taking the lead in the International Decade for Action, Water for Life. Under the framework of the Millennium Development Goals, the country achieved an impressive progress regarding access to improved water and sanitation. Most of the country’s infrastructure, however, is on the verge of collapse, and the level of services may not meet the new criteria of the Sustainable Development Goals unless the Government proactively intervenes and safely manages small‑scale water and sanitation solutions, in particular in rural areas. The lack of adequate access to water and sanitation in public institutions is a serious concern with regard to the human rights to water and sanitation, and has a direct negative impact on other rights, such as the rights to health, education, work and life. I encourage the Government to translate the commitment made at the global level into national legislation and policies, budgetary allocation and implementation.

Seizing the opportunities available in the current water sector reform process, the division of power and responsibilities among State authorities needs to be urgently clarified and regulation must be made independent and separate from the provision of services. The revision of the Water Code of 2000 must place the human rights to water and sanitation at the core of this legislation. A new comprehensive tariff system is also needed and must balance affordability of water and sanitation for all with the financial sustainability of these services.

I wish to express my appreciation to the Government’s response to my recommendations. I am encouraged that the Government is considering the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as part of national plans for the implementation of international obligations in the field of human rights.


I visited Botswana from 9 to 17 November 2015, during which a significant part of the country was facing an emergency situation, with one of the worst droughts in its history. I was impressed by the resilience of the people as well as by the Government’s efforts to provide an essential amount of water to the population despite the difficult situation. The Government should take this extreme drought as a learning opportunity to develop a comprehensive strategy to provide uninterrupted access to safe drinking water and sanitation in future probable scenarios of increasing water stress. At the same time, the Government must continue to invest in sanitation and water services to guarantee affordable access for the poor and marginalized groups.

I am confident that Botswana, which has achieved rapid progress since its independence in 1966, has the capacity to reach out to all populations, particularly those in rural and remote areas, resettlements and poor urban settlements, who have not equally benefitted from such development, including in access to water and sanitation.  The Government should also adopt a transformative approach for people living in transition from nomadic life, and women and girls, to address their disproportionate lack of access to water and sanitation.

I appreciate the comprehensive response provided by the Government to my recommendations, which has been circulated as an addendum to my report. In relation to this response, I would like to clarify one point that is also relevant to other countries. An independent regulatory body which is mandated to monitor the implementation of the human rights to water and sanitation, ensuring adequate services and affordable access, is a very important accountability mechanism regardless of the type of water and sanitation service providers. Regulatory bodies should be able to monitor the performance of providers independently of them being public entities or private companies.

El Salvador

Voy ahora a presentarles brevemente  algunas conclusiones de mi misión a El Salvador, llevada a cabo en mayo de 2016.
El Salvador también ha tenido un progreso impresionante en acceso al agua y al saneamiento en el marco de los Objetivos de Desarrollo del Milenio de la ONU. El Estado debe ahora profundizar sus esfuerzos hacia el cumplimiento de los derechos al agua y al saneamiento de los grupos más desfavorecidos, incluyendo a los habitantes del área rural, las mujeres, las niñas y las personas privadas de libertad.

Con el fin de cumplir con sus compromisos internacionales y tomando en cuenta los retos presentados durante la sequía prolongada el año pasado, recomiendo que el Estado de El Salvador tome, entre otras medidas, las siguientes: 1) Que incorpore el derecho al agua y al saneamiento en su marco legal, a través de la reforma constitucional y de la aprobación de una Ley de Aguas; 2) Que elabore el Plan Nacional de Agua y Saneamiento mediante un proceso participativo, reflejando los principios de los derechos humanos; 3) Que establezca un regulador independiente con competencia para supervisar el cumplimiento de las responsabilidades de derechos humanos de los proveedores de servicios de agua y saneamiento y  4) Que fortalezca la estrategia nacional para hacer frente al cambio climático, incluyendo la creación de un mecanismo eficaz para responder de forma oportuna a futuras sequias y a sus efectos en la población más vulnerable.