Addressing the role of Sustainable Development Goals for women

In 2015, member countries at the United Nations adopted a new development agenda as a plan of action for ‘people, planet and prosperity’ enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (also known as the Global Goals). In an interconnected world these goals call for joint participation of the member countries to tackle global concerns such as climate change, poverty and environmental sustainability and act as a roadmap for where the world could be in 2030. They are deemed essential for a safe and secure future that brings prosperity, opportunity and human rights for all.

These goals cannot be looked at in isolation, and understanding the interlinkages between them is fundamental to ensure that the new agenda for sustainable development is realized. On International Women’s Day, it is befitting to look at the role and impact of women on these Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), focusing specifically on SDG6 : Access to Water and Sanitation.

In India under the Swachh Bharat Mission thousands of women are speaking up and demanding access to sanitation for their health and safety.

In India, women played an important role in the independence movement and yet struggle under patriarchal oppression which restricts their lives and the impact they can have on society. Women living in poverty are most vulnerable and often lack even the most basic access to safe water and sanitation, causing considerable impact on their lives.

The lack of water has a major influence on women and girls around the world as their primary responsibility becomes fetching drinking water[i]. They often have to carry more than 40 pounds of (often dirty) water from sources over four miles away from their homes[ii]. The Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India estimated that in 2015 due to the rising population and depleting groundwater levels, the average annual per capita availability of water in the country has reduced to 1545 cubic meters[iii], down by approximately 17% from 2001. A report by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) in 2012, said that more than half of women in rural India travel between 200 meters and five kilometers daily to get drinking water. The report additionally highlights that according to these numbers one in two women in rural India spends an average of 210 hours in a year for fetching water also cumulatively amounts to a loss of 27 days’ wages for these households. The economic set-back to the India owing to this adversity still goes largely unmapped; however according to UN Water it is equivalent to a national loss of income of 10 billion rupees[iv].

Lack of access to sanitation has an equally profound impact on the lives of women and girls. 1 in 3 women worldwide lack access to safe sanitation, they have to risk shame and attack just to relive themselves in the open[v]. Increased access to sanitation facilities not only reduces disease incidence,[vi] but safe, well-lit latrines with locks can also significantly reduce the threat of sexual harassment for women and girls. Defecating in the open has some alarming risks for women as the risk of rape is increased significantly if defecating in the open. In 2014, two girls who had gone to use the field as a toilet were found hanging from a tree in Katra Sahadatganj[vii] after being gang raped and lynched. Statements by state police departments in India echo this risk, highlighting that as many as 400 women could have been saved from sexual violence if they had access to a latrine[viii].

The sustainable development agenda cannot be realized without ensuring that young people are included in the dialogue and their wellbeing is put at the focus of the SDG. Education therefore is one of the 17 goals, but quality education for all is impossible if we do not equip our schools with water and proper toilets to ensure that more young girls can stay in school. According to the JMP (2015) report, 1/3 of schools globally lack access to safe water and sanitation. This forces girls to stay at home while they are menstruating causing them to miss their lessons which eventually leads to them falling behind or dropping out[ix]. School enrolment rates for girls have been shown to improve by over 15% when provided with clean water and a toilet facility, given girls no longer have to walk miles every day to fetch water.

Water and sanitation is at the very core of sustainable development and are critical to the survival of people and the planet. Currently, water stress affects more than 2 billion people around the world, a figure that is projected to rise exponentially. Already, water stress affects countries on every continent and hinders the sustainability of natural resources, as well as economic and social development[x]. Goal 6 not only addresses the issues relating to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, but also highlights the importance of interconnectedness between the goals. Realizing Goal 6 therefore will impact other goals such as Health (SDG3), Education (SDG4), and most importantly Gender Equality (SDG5). Unless we ensure universal access to safe drinking water and sustainable sanitation, the poor will remain poor.

To ensure universal access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030, we must invest in adequate infrastructure, provide sanitation facilities and encourage hygiene at every level. SDG6 pays special attention to women in it’s targets “By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.” It is therefore vital to ensure that women are involved in the process of realizing SDG6 by empowering them to make a decision about their futures.

In India under the Swachh Bharat Mission thousands of women are speaking up and demanding access to sanitation for their health and safety. The government is highlighting their stories in the hope that more women are inspired to make a change in their communities. As women and girls are disproportionately affected by the issues of lack of access to water and sanitation, they are often in the best position to identify solutions and contribute to the success of development programs on the ground. Their involvement makes the project nearly 7 times more effective[xi].

The interconnectedness of the Global Goals emphasizes that in order to achieve the targets set for SDG 6 gender equality is pivotal. On this International Women’s Day let us then ensure that as we strive towards realizing the global goals so no one is left behind. In ensuring access to clean drinking water and sanitation for women, we can ensure that women can devote more time to valuable activities which will allow them to realize their full potential and self-actualize which in turn will strength their communities on a whole.





[v] JMP, Joint Monitoring Program & Study. 2013. Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation. (downloaded on March 3, 2017).

[vi] Ramani, S. V. & Parihar, R. 2015. Linkages between sanitation, health and poverty reduction. Report for EU FP7 Project. MNEmerge. Deliverable 1.5. Grant agreement no: 612889.






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Rushva Parihar is a development professional working with the United Nations University – Merit, Maastricht.