Women and Water: Natural, Human, and Women’s Rights

This month I want to vary a little from my initial theme and talk more broadly about the right to water and the right of water, without highlighting any specific organization.  While the right to water and the right of water may seem to be the same thing to many people, the two are extremely different.  I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference on the right to water, where the intersections of these three issues were discussed.

The right to water is the idea that people have a right to water resources, and to use them to their best advantage.  When people talk about how women in the developing world should have access to clean water, this is a right to water.  The same can be said for restoring the rights of indigenous peoples to the water resources once taken from them by colonialists – they are fighting for their right to water, and their right to use water. (This can also be considered a water right, which deals with water from a legal, property standpoint).  It is generally agreed that all human beings should have a right to water.  Where there is disagreement is in how to enforce that right and how to ensure that all people have access to that right.

The right of water looks at the issues from a deep ecology or spiritual ecofeminism type of perspective; meaning that it looks at water as the right-holder.  As a natural resource, and perhaps the one most necessary for sustaining the life of human beings, water has a right to be preserved and protected.  Since water cannot physically represent itself, people must protect the rights of water.

Women fall into this junction of human rights and water at many different sections.  First, and perhaps the most obvious, women have been tied to water through religions for centuries.  Traditionally, water has been personified as a woman — the sea is feminized.  ‘She’ becomes a source of tremendous natural (I use natural here to mean from the world of nature) power that men must conquer and control.  Once water is feminized, the similarities between water and the oppression of women become more apparent.  While women are oppressed and restricted, water is conquered, forced to change its course, and privatized.

Second, women are the primary gatherers of water in the developing world.  In some places, women must walk miles to the nearest water source, sometimes more than once a day, in order to bring back enough water for their families and their domestic duties.  These walks are long, not necessarily safe routes, putting the women and children who walk them in danger.  A better global stewardship of water resources would make these challenges less dangerous and time consuming.  Attention to water conservation and climate change issues would make water scarcity less of a problem.

The UN’s report on the health of water stated that half of the world’s hospital beds are filled by people sick or dying due to water-related illness that could be completely preventable with access to clean, safe water.  These are not new statistics.  For years now, it has been evident that water resources are becoming scarcer, and the water that is left is more polluted than before, and that developing countries are bearing the brunt of that (with notable exceptions around the developed world).

Is this exemption from international relief due to the feminization of water resources? I think that is a large part of it.  Water quality and quantity is an issue that directly affects human life.  We cannot exist without water.  Water has been defined as a human right – the South African government admits that water is a natural right that all people should have access to.   Granted, South Africa is not the best example when it comes to implementation of equitable water practices, but the government has taken the step to declare water a natural right. Yet access to water, the right to water, is still debated, couched in legalese, allowing nations to disregard it and manipulate that right how they see fit at the moment in time.

The right to water has been marginalized much as women have been.  ‘She’ (the sea, the river, the stream) is restricted and not consulted in the decisions regarding her fate.  Thanks to feminism, women have been able to regain control of many of the decisions about their lives, in certain areas of the world.  However, the decisions concerning water resources are still left to the minds of men rather than consulting the women who are both the primary water managers and are likened to water in traditions.  Here is where the linkage needs to take the next step.

Yes, access to water is a human right. Yes, women are the primary interactors with water in many developed countries.  And yes, water is often coded as female.  Since all of these are true, than the access to water is a women’s right as well as a natural right and a human right.


(Photo Credit: UN Water)