Cultivating Equality - International Day of Rural Women & Global Handwashing Day

Two Vietnamese women inspecting a crop in a field

Ms Do Thi Dep (left), had the idea to “produce organic vegetables combined with drip irrigation technology and agricultural mulch to promote sustainable livelihoods and climate change adaptation” in the Mekong Delta. (photo: Thrive Networks East Meets West / Nguyen Van Ngoc Tien, Program Officer in Ben Tre province).  

At hand and in our hands – shared care is critical

By Joanna Mott, Water for Women Gender and Social Inclusion Specialist

The importance of hand hygiene for all to stop the spread of disease cannot be underestimated - even more so now in the context of COVID-19. Across the world, one in three people lack basic handwashing facilities at home.

For those of us who have or have had a caring role, we are well aware that teaching children to practice handwashing at critical times (such as before handling food and after using the toilet) is not an easy task. And it becomes unsurmountable when there is no or limited access to water and soap.

This is why today’s theme for Global Handwashing Day is “Our Future is at Hand – Let’s Move Forward Together.” If we move forward together, we are demonstrating our collective commitment to leaving no one behind in access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services – in our institutions, communities and households.

This day also acknowledges the critical role of rural women, and for this year, their role in “Cultivating Good Food for All.” This is important, because rural women make up a quarter of the world’s population. While their roles in bringing food to the family table are recognised, what is less recognised are their substantial roles in farming and food cultivation. COVID-19, coupled with the climate crisis, is fueling food and water insecurity, of which rural women are disproportionately affected.

We know that the pandemic has had devastating impacts on everyone, but we also know that it has been more devastating for some than others – such as women and people who were systematically marginalised prior to COVID-19, including people with disabilities, people living in poverty, people from sexual and gender minority communities and people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Lack of access to WASH, health and social services, as well as livelihood opportunities, has always been an issue for rural communities, especially rural women.

"Globally, with few exceptions, every gender and development indicator for which data are available reveals that rural women fare worse than rural men and urban women and that they disproportionately experience poverty, exclusion, and the effects of climate change." United Nations

Data collected through the United Nations Development Programme COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker illustrates “the surge in violence against women and girls, the unprecedented increase in unpaid care work, and the large-scale loss of jobs, incomes and livelihoods” of women, as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns. These issues are likely exacerbated in rural and remote settings due to the decreased access to health and social services, as well as more rigid gender stereotypes and social norms.

Celebrating the importance of global handwashing and rural women on the same day is befitting. The themes for this year are critically connected. Moving forward together to support hand hygiene and cultivate good food for all depends on the health and resilience of rural women and girls. Water for Women projects are contributing to this in the Asia Pacific region through improved access to handwashing and sanitation facilities in health care settings, which serves to decrease infection and mortality rates, including in maternal and child health, and in schools, which supports adolescent girls and women teachers to practice safe and dignified menstrual hygiene.

Strengthening the leadership of rural women, in all their diversities, at community and institutional levels contributes to more inclusive policy and practice to reach the most marginalised in communities. But without the necessary mechanisms in place to support their resilience, ‘leadership’ has the risk of becoming yet another burden placed on women. With the sharp increase in unpaid care work for women as a result of COVID lockdowns, it is now more urgent than ever to address this imbalance.

Women’s roles in farming and increasing their involvement in decision-making to tackle food insecurity in households and communities depends on the alleviation of their care and domestic burdens. Moving forward together in hand hygiene for all can be a critical mechanism to supporting equality in care work, and in turn, women’s participation outside the home.

Handwashing and hygiene campaigns have the very real opportunity to promote shared responsibility for care work (including family hygiene and food preparation), by targeting men and women equally as caregivers. Shared care responsibilities also have the benefit of strengthening handwashing and hygiene practices in families and communities, helping to reduce the occurrence of diarrheal and other disease, thus ensuring better nutrition and health for all.

Improved hygiene for all and greater gender equality in and outside the home. Now that’s moving forward together to achieve real resilience – for women, and the ‘one in three.’ It’s at hand and in our hands!


Global Handwashing Day is Friday, 15 October, with the theme “Our Future is at Hand – Let’s Move Forward Together!” It calls for coordinated action towards universal access to hand hygiene, as a first line of defence against disease, including COVID-19. It is also the United Nations International Day of Rural Women, with the theme, “Rural Women Cultivating Good Food for All.” 

Women and girls have been disadvantaged throughout the pandemic; a problem exacerbated in rural areas. Unequal power relations between women and men, discriminatory gender norms and practices, prevalent violence against women and girls, and their disproportionate share of unpaid domestic duties continue to have detrimental consequences for women and girls, including when it comes to hygiene, health and nutrition. 

To truly "move forward together," it is clear that we must address this inequality and empower women and girls, in all their diversities, to build a healthier and more resilient future for all. Water for Women is the Australian government's flagship WASH program, delivering AUD118.9 million in aid over five years from 2018 to 2022. Water for Women is supporting 33 WASH projects and research initiatives that aim to directly benefit 2.9 million people in 15 countries across South Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific.

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