In a Win for Women and Girls, the United Nations Recognizes Water and Sanitation as a Basic Human Right

A few weeks ago, we posted about an advocacy training we co-hosted in San Francisco that explored the relationship between environmental issues and sexual and reproductive rights and health. We highlighted that access to clean water is fundamental to the promotion and protection of the human rights and empowerment of women and girls—and that the lack of it can actually put them in danger of sexual violence.

The acknowledgement of this relationship makes us so excited about the United Nations General Assembly deciding to adopt a resolution recognizing water and sanitation as a basic human right. The resolution passed with no votes against it, although 41 countries did abstain. While we are disappointed that so many countries—including the United States—abstained from voting, we are nonetheless heartened that the resolution was passed by 122 other countries. And while environmentalists all over the world have quite obvious reasons to applaud this decision, we believe that those concerned with the health of woman and girls, and specifically with the promotion and protection of sexual and reproductive rights and health, have just as much cause to celebrate.

Improved access to clean water and sanitation will bring health benefits for the world’s women and girls. As we’ve emphasized in the past, the effects of water scarcity on women and girls can be drastic. Not only are women around the world often tied to agricultural production and the way it’s influenced by water, but they often bear the primary responsibility of gathering water necessary for families to bathe, cook, and clean. So when climate change increases water scarcity, more droughts, unpredictable storms, and uncharacteristic weather patterns, women are most affected—especially poor women and girls. In the face of these changes, women must walk farther and farther to access clean water, jeopardizing their safety and, too often, their education, to do so. And the unfortunate reality is that women and girls are often made vulnerable to violence and sexual assault as they walk to gather clean water for their families. Thus, even though it might not seem like “our issue,” the latest UN resolution identifying access to clean water as a human right really does mark one small step forward in working to ensure that women are able to lead lives that are just, healthy, and free from sexual coercion and violence

For these reasons and more, we join the chorus of voices hailing this latest UN resolution as a victory, not only for environmental justice advocates, but also for women and girls all over the world.

Photo courtesy of Curt Carnemark / World Bank



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