Women are doing it for themselves — but we need to make sure it’s not by themselves

A Cambodian woman standing facing the camera with her arms crossed and a big smile on her face. Behind her are components for latrine building.

Women, WASH & Resilience

Insights from GEDSI advisers in Water for Women projects across Asia and the Pacific 


Every year, when International Women’s Day comes around, we shake our heads at the woeful gender disparities that still exist in every society and praise the few women who are empowered in leadership positions or have ‘proved’ themselves at social, political, or economic levels. By no means are we suggesting that this is not a day of celebration for women’s achievements or that these women do not deserve recognition. They absolutely do, having overcome their fair share of barriers to get where they are. But we need to revisit the reason why there is an International Women’s Day in the first place – to tackle gender and social inequality in its myriad and often invisible forms. Systemic change is essential if we are to move forward together to ensure gender equality for all women, particularly the most marginalised, who face multiple layers of discrimination in their homes, communities, and workplaces.


We know that women are doing it for themselves time and time again, but where gender equality is concerned, it should never be by themselves. Investing in women means progress for all of us, so we all have a part to play. The work of Water for Women and our partners in 16 countries across Asia and the Pacific provides compelling examples of how the burden of responsibility for systemic change cannot solely fall on women’s shoulders. Water for Women projects collaborate with entire communities to address harmful social norms, so that women - in all their diversities - can be more fully supported to thrive and lead in ways that are safe, meaningful, and culturally appropriate.


Water for Women projects do this by supporting women and people from marginalised groups to have a stronger say in household, community, and institutional decision-making for more equitable access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services. Our partners recognise that this is critical for leaving no one behind, building health and resilience in communities, and even for addressing the impacts of climate change, which disproportionately affect women, but also as the principal pathway towards peace, gender equality, and social cohesion in society at large.


The Gender Equality, Disability and Social Inclusion (GEDSI) staff on Water for Women project teams in countries across Asia and the Pacific have important insights about International Women’s Day and what it means for them and their work to support more equitable access for climate-resilient WASH. Collectively, their resounding message is the invaluable contributions women bring because of their roles, knowledge, and lived experiences of the daily realities confronting them, their families, and communities.


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"It is well evidenced and recognised that women and marginalised populations, including a significant portion of urban poor living in precarious settlements, battling with low and uneven access to all essential public services, including WASH, are worst affected by climate change. Both at the individual level and as primary caretakers of their families and sometimes the extended clan and community; women experience the worst kinds of indignities and untold suffering. Therefore, this year’s theme of IWD as “Invest in women – Accelerate progress” to accelerate change in the policies, programs to ensure gender equity at every level… makes it very clear that the battle for social equity and gender equality is best led by women and marginalised groups."

- Ravie Kiran, CFAR India



Why are women so critical to climate-resilient WASH?


There are two interlinking aspects to this, according to Geraldine Valei from Plan PNG:

1. Disproportionate impacts - Women, particularly in developing countries, are the primary caregivers for their families and are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change on water and sanitation. They are more likely to bear the burden of collecting water, often having to travel long distances when water sources dry up or become contaminated due to climate change. This is common in certain parts of North Bougainville and most parts of South Bougainville. 

2. Traditional knowledge and practices - Women often have valuable traditional knowledge and practices related to water management, sanitation, and hygiene, which can contribute to climate-resilient solutions. Their insights can help in the development of sustainable and culturally appropriate WASH strategies.  And for Bougainville being 90% a matrilineal society, women are the custodians of their land and will hold a lot of this knowledge passed on with the support from their maternal uncles and brothers many generations down their clan lineage.


Women are critical to climate-resilient WASH not only due to the traditional knowledge that many women hold about water and sanitation in their communities (although that should be reason enough), but also because they are often at the forefront of climate change impacts, making the urgency to adapt paramount for feeding and caring for their families.


"Water and food sources are affected by rising sea levels and drought etc. making it more difficult for the providers (women) who work extra hard to ensure families have food and water."

- Betty Amos, Live & Learn Environmental Education PNG


Jigme Choden from SNV Bhutan makes the point that this ‘quality of care’ by women is what can make the difference in climate-resilient WASH policy and programming, as it can be “seamlessly considered in different aspects from gender, inclusion, design and implementation.” While Novika Noerdiyanti from Plan Indonesia highlights the “multiplier effect” of involving women in climate-resilient WASH efforts for “influencing families and communities and strengthening the overall effectiveness of the project.”


Antoneta Soares from WaterAid Timor-Leste also points out that many women are more likely to be affected by severe climate events in their communities. Therefore, their “involvement is important in any discussion to ensure all of the WASH infrastructure is climate-resilient.” Speaking from experience of the recent flooding events in Timor-Leste, she also highlights that involving women is necessary to ensure they “have enough knowledge on how to do self-preparedness and mitigation plans before, during and after severe climate events.”


Ravie Kiran from CFAR India goes further to talk about the power structures that actively discriminate against women and marginalised groups, which further exacerbate the climate risks they face. He explains that it is critical to support women and marginalised communities to combat entrenched discriminatory norms and be the leaders in climate change responses that affect their communities.


"Every step we take to make this happen will have a lasting impact in not only building a gender sensitive and responsive society and system, but most importantly, in empowering women and marginalised communities to reduce the risk they face and develop climate-resilient WASH infrastructure and services. In most cases they (women) have been fighting the battle of inequity and inequality at multiple levels and often pitted against power structures that are discriminatory, disrespectful, and even misogynistic, but nothing deters them as they sense the wind of change and the growing realisation that none of the most entrenched problems, be it poverty or gender inequality, can be addressed or rooted out without their collective assertion and involvement."

- Ravie Kiran, CFAR India


Angeline Bisi from Plan International Solomon Islands also highlights the importance of empowering and investing in women due to their increased vulnerability to climate change impacts, driven by prevalent gender disparities and norms: "Women are vulnerable to water-related disasters and climate change impacts due to societal roles, economic disparities, and cultural norms. Thus, it is vital to empower and invest in women of all diversities to mitigate these impacts, ensure progress, and accelerate peace in communities."


Through these expert voices, we have come to better understand the centrality of women and marginalised groups to climate-resilient water resource and WASH solutions, and the need for broader systemic change. The goal is to make gender inequality entirely a thing of the past and the empowerment and leadership of women and marginalised groups nothing out of the ordinary.


Women in Solomon Islands presenting observations of climate impacts on water and WASH in their community
Members of a woman's group in a rural community of Solomon Islands share observations of climate impacts on water and WASH in their community (Plan International and Live & Learn Evironmental Education)


It takes intentional and multidimension approaches


Supporting women to take a central role for climate-resilient water resource and WASH initiatives requires intentional and multi-dimensional approaches. At the heart of these approaches is the need to support deep social norms change, and rights holder organisations that represent the interests and needs of their marginalised constituents, including women, sexual and gender minorities, and people living with disabilities. These organisations are working to change exclusionary norms every day.


Nancy Wobo from World Vision PNG discusses how their project, WASH Voices for Empowerment in PNG (WAVE), has been engaging men and boys as positive change agents for gender equality in their work to promote this year’s Interntaional Women's Day theme, 'Invest in women: Accelerate progress' - "Women leaders from different groups, clubs, and churches, with the support from male advocates, are doing awareness reaching out to institutions, communities, schools, and churches."


Nancy calls for the engagement of men and boys, as well as faith leaders, in any organised event or meeting to tackle the prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV) in their communities. She emphasises that this engagement “will influence the policy makers and decision-making power dynamics to value women in all progress of life within the systems and structures. To minimise violence faced by vulnerable groups, building men and boys’ capacity will play a significant role to minimise GBV and embrace change in the society.”


Enid Kupe (WaterAid PNG) emphasises the importance of men in supporting women’s empowerment, and the need to work in partnership to accelerate equality and peace. "I believe in mutual empowerment as a catalyst for women’s empowerment. When women and men work together in balance, understanding and having mutual respect, women can truly become confident and strong to raise the bar in having meaningful contribution in ensuring climate resilience WASH and having peace in equal distribution and access of/for water. It is essential for both genders to recognize and support this balance for empowerment to be achieved and accelerated effectively.”


Below are some intentional approaches and strategies that Water for Women GEDSI staff have outlined for how their projects invest in women to accelerate progress on all fronts – for the women themselves, for the communities and institutions in which they work, aiming to support positive and systemic change, and for strengthening climate resilience in communities through equitable WASH.


"By empowering rights holders and advocating for the meaningful participation and leadership of women and people with disabilities, we've strengthened the accountability of local governments to design accessible and resilient WASH infrastructures and provide inclusive WASH services, tailored to specific needs and barriers. Our program has applied a people-centric approach to design and implement behaviour change communications (BCC) campaigns to transform hygiene behaviours within the context of climate change, and challenge associated social and gender norms…. Additionally, we've facilitated partner NGOs and local governments in assessing their institutional capacity and prioritising the GEDSI agenda to incorporate GEDSI within their systems, policies, plans, and practices."

- Sabitra Dhakal, SNV Nepal



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"To encourage women's decision-making and leadership in climate-resilient WASH, the project is increasing awareness and building the capacity of girls, women, and women's organisations regarding WASH and climate change issues. By enhancing their capacity, individuals can become more resilient and adept at addressing climate change impacts on WASH conditions. it is also creating opportunities for women and women's groups to engage in decision-making processes and leadership roles. Involving girls and women in assessments and discussions on climate change responses for Inclusive WASH ensures that their voices and perspectives are acknowledged and considered in the planning, implementation, and monitoring of projects."

- Novika Noerdiyanti, Plan Indonesia



Priorities for progress


Geraldine Valei from Plan International PNG shares three key priority areas for action to ensure the meaningful inclusion of women in climate-resilient water resource and WASH solutions. 

1. Gender equity - Ongoing efforts must be made to address gender disparities and promote gender equity in access to and control over water resources, sanitation facilities and hygiene practices. This includes addressing social and cultural norms that may limit women’s participation and decision-making power.

2. Capacity building – Identifying gaps in knowledge and skills for rural women, and providing the necessary knowledge, skills, and resources to actively participate in climate-resilient WASH initiatives is crucial. This can involve training programs, education on climate change adaptation, and entrepreneurship in WASH-related activities.

3. Policy and planning - Governments and other organisations should integrate gender-responsive approaches into policies, programs, and planning processes related to climate-resilient WASH.


Implementing these different GEDSI approaches and strategies is no small task. Shifting deeply entrenched norms to advance gender equality in safe and culturally appropriate ways requires skill, experience, courage, and commitment. We acknowledge the deep and sustained work of all the GEDSI staff working on Water for Women projects, along with their colleagues, teams, and local partners. 


Water for Women partners are committed to supporting women and marginalised people to move from the margins to the centre, so that their voices are heard in decision-making processes and their leadership valued in climate-resilient water and WASH systems  – every day. Now that is something truly worth celebrating this International Women’s Day!



This Insight was written collaboratively by Joanna Mott, Water for Women's GEDSI Adviser, and GEDSI staff working on Water for Women projects in Asia and the Pacific: Jigme Choden (SNV Bhutan), Sabitra Dhakal (SNV Nepal), Malaphone Inthilath (SNV Lao PDR), Tet Chann (iDE Cambodia), Angeline Bisi (Plan International Solomon Islands), Geraldine Valei (Plan International PNG), Betty Amos (Live & Learn Environmental Education PNG), Nancy Wobo (World Vision PNG), Enid Kupe (WaterAid PNG), Novika Noerdiyanti (Yayasan Plan International Indonesia), Ravie Kiran (CFAR, India), and Antoneta Soares (WaterAid Timor-Leste). 


The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Water for Women, the Australian Government or our partners.



As we mark International Women's Day on 8th March 2024, advancing gender equality is more crucial than ever.

Throughout the world, women are at the frontlines of climate change and it’s impacts on water security. With primary responsibility for meeting caregiving and household water needs, including for sanitation and hygiene (WASH) purposes, women are water and WASH experts in their communities.

Investing in women benefits everyone. Women hold often untapped local and traditional knowledge that can help solve context-specific climate challenges and strengthen community resilience. Communities with women leaders tend to be stronger, more resilient, more equitable, and better equipped to face the challenges posed by climate change. Yet women remain underrepresented in decision-making about water, WASH, and climate change at all levels - from local to international bodies. 

With the 2030 deadline on the Sustainable Development Goals in sight, we must mobilse the diverse experiences and wisdom of women for a safe, just and climate-resilient future. We must invest in women to accelerate progress on SDG6 and build a peaceful and fairer future for all.


Header photo: Ms Luong Sophea, a proud latrine business owner and sanitation entrpreneur with iDE in Cambodia (iDE)


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