FinDev Blog

Women As Changemakers Improve Access to Water and Sanitation

How women’s participation in household investment decisions accelerates access to quality water and sanitation services
Photo credit: Nicolas Réméné via Communication for Development Ltd.

Rajni Vishwakarma, a daily-wage worker in rural Madhya Pradesh, is a self-help group leader and microfinance client. Her eyes light up as she proudly shares her journey of gaining access to a water supply, “Access to safe water was a big challenge for most households in the community. We struggled every day to carry it from far-off wells. It was then I decided to avail a loan but was still worried about the loan. So, I finally decided to save from my earnings and bear the responsibility for repayments.”

Like Rajni, many women from low-income households across India undergo hardships to access water and quality sanitation. However, her initiative and decision-making to overcome this life challenge isn’t as common. Research from across India shows that women have low participation rates in the decision-making process when it comes to accessing safe water and sanitation facilities, and that this negatively affects their access. Decisions include whether to take out a loan to finance a water and sanitation services (WSS) improvement, the type of improvement needed and subsequent usage of these facilities.

Despite their exclusion from making these decisions for their households, women and girls are often tasked with water collection for their households. This physical burden can be detrimental for the young, elderly and sick, and reduces the time women have available for study, work or other self-fulfilling activities. Thus, women’s access to adequate water and sanitation - and their role in the decision-making process to get it – plays an important role in broader development and empowerment goals. 

A woman’s voice makes greater impact

In 2019-20, Grameen Foundation interviewed over 4,000 microfinance clients as part of an impact evaluation of’s WaterCredit program in India. We wanted to understand the impact of women's participation in WSS investment decisions on household dynamics and water and sanitation-related outcomes. We found that women’s participation in the decision-making process resulted in improved access to safe water and sanitation facilities and was positively correlated to households’ overall financial health. 

Households where women participated in the investment decision were four times more likely to attain improved water services and three times more likely to attain improved sanitation services when compared to households where women didn’t participate in the investment decision. This supports findings that indicate that women are more inclined than men to recognize the importance of improved water and sanitation access at the household level, and that they are motivated to take out WSS loans.

Barriers to women’s participation in decision-making

Knowing that access to WSS improvements increases when women are given a seat at the decision-making table, it is important to identify the ways women are commonly left out of the investment decision. Our survey indicated that there are two interwoven barriers to women’s participation in household decision-making: deeply engrained socio-cultural norms and low women’s participation in the workforce.

In India’s traditional patriarchal society, women are expected to be homemakers. They are not afforded leadership roles within their households and often have a limited or no voice in household decisions. These traditional gender roles also impede women’s ability to participate in the workforce to generate income for their households. Since they don’t contribute economically to the household, women are often not treated as an equal member of the family, with the breadwinner holding all the decision-making power.

The importance of women’s economic contribution

Our study found that a woman’s economic contribution to the WSS loan was correlated with her level of decision-making. In the 15 percent of households where women bore the sole repayment responsibility, the women were seven times more likely to participate in the investment decision-making process. Women borrowers who did not earn their own income experienced greater worries and more family arguments over repayment, discouraging them from making the decision to invest in improved WSS in the first place.

Further demonstrating the intricate link between women’s decision-making and household finances, we found that households where women participated in the decision-making process were more likely to make small routine monthly savings, contributing to the financial health of the household and their ability to invest in household improvements such as water and sanitation.

Three recommendations to improve women’s participation in decision-making

“Learning from my experience, four of my group members have availed loans for water connections,” Rajni told us. As women like Rajni share their experiences, more women are becoming vocal about their need for better water and sanitation facilities at home and becoming more active in household decision-making.

To help increase women’s participation, we recommend that financial service providers:

  1. Introduce gender dialogues at the household level as part of client education efforts. The goal is to make space for a woman’s narrative, giving her a voice and a recognized role in the household’s decision-making activity. These gender-related client education efforts also help men understand the issues that disproportionately impact women, such as water and sanitation access, and some of the barriers they can help break down. At Grameen, we have used gender dialogues for women’s economic empowerment across multiple programs and found it to have significant impact on women’s participation in decision-making.
  2. Make a more concerted effort to target marketing efforts to women and those who currently have the power to control their participation, such as the husband, son, or elder female of the household. Targeted marketing can help women understand the importance of safe water and sanitation facilities for the household, making them more likely to participate in the decision-making process for WSS investments.
  3. Enable access to goal-based savings. This type of financial service can enable women who are housewives to use their savings to gain a voice in the decision-making process and, consequently, access to improved water and sanitation facilities.

Women’s participation is key to improving a household’s access to water and sanitation facilities and can have a profound impact on their family’s and community’s quality of life.  As changemakers for their households and their communities, women can help bring India closer to achieving ubiquitous access to adequate water and sanitation facilities.

This study will be published in late March 2021.


Comments on this page are moderated by FinDev Editors. We welcome comments that offer remarks and insights that are relevant to the post. Learn More

Alff, Dr. Christina , Deutschland
05 March 2021

thank you for this article - I do agree with the findings but I would like to raise awareness on the wording - women are never and nowhere in the world housewives...they usually work hard and longer hours than men, esp. in rural areas where they do farming, fetch water and care for animals.

Abby Augusta , FinDev Gateway
18 March 2021

Good point, terminology is always important. Thank you for pointing this out.

Leave a comment