Are we doing enough to empower women?

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August is Women’s Month in South Africa, where the nation commemorates the historic march of 1956 which became a turning point in the role of women in the struggle for freedom. This march is a key milestone in South Africa’s road to freedom.

The growth and development of a nation depends extensively on the empowerment of its women, with a number of studies showing that countries that have expanded opportunities for women in education and work places have largely achieved greater prosperity and social development.

As we celebrating Women’s Day on August 09 and the rest of the Women’s Month, the question we need to ask ourselves is; are we doing enough to empower women special in water and sanitation sector?

In South Africa, women constitute a large proportion of the economically challenged, especially in rural areas; the National Development Plan (NDP) acknowledges this by proposing a range of measures to advance women’s equality. The transformation of the economy should involve active participation and empowerment of women. Women’s economic empowerment provides increased access for their participation in the nation’s development agenda and also increases their access to economic resources and opportunities including jobs, financial services, skills development and market information. 

Women and men usually have different roles in water and sanitation activities; these differences are particularly pronounced in rural areas. After 24 years of democracy, women from rural areas still walk long distance to fetch water from river and springs for their households. It is without a doubt that more needs to be done to empower women, especially those in rural areas.

As a result, women are most often users, providers and managers of water in rural households and are the guardians of household hygiene. Given their long-established active role, women usually are very knowledgeable about current water sources, their quality and reliability. The lack of water and safe sanitation services negatively affect women’s empowerment and progress.

Therefore, women are key players in water saving and implementing improved hygiene behaviors. Men are usually more concerned with water for irrigation or for livestock, while women are often more direct users of water.

Because of these different roles and incentives, it is important to fully involve women in demand-driven water and sanitation programmes, where communities decide what types of water and sanitation services they want. 

Hence, women’s leadership and decision making power in water and sanitation is critical. The gender gap often found in planning, design and construction is slowly starting to narrow as women assume more prominent roles: from managing water users’ committees, to making financial decisions, to overseeing business administration, technical operations and maintenance.

This progress does not make up for the fact that women already spend more hours than men on unpaid activities, including caregiving and domestic work. We also need to work as a society to ensure their involvement in water and sanitation services does not further contribute to the burden of unpaid work. It is important that we create good environment for women to have equal opportunities as men, especially women from the rural areas. The government needs to fast track its water and sanitation service delivery to ensure the accessibility to clean water and dignified sanitation.

It is for this reason; the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) give us the opportunity to work in an integrated way for people, planet and prosperity. Water is essential to all, including reducing inequalities and discrimination. 

Let us join hands in creation equal opportunity, protect our women and water. As the United Nation (UN) reviews progress on SDG 10, this is the time for governments, businesses, NGOs and academic institutions to look at how they are investing in women’s leadership in the water and sanitation sector, from local committees to the international stage.


Khulekani Ngcobo is a communicator at the Gauteng Department of Water and Sanitation, Gauteng Region.