Studies show that women are most affected by water and sanitation deficiencies. Globally, sixty four percent of women are still faced with the responsibility of providing water for their households .
UNICEF has highlighted that women and girls collectively spend as much as 200 million hours each day – more than 22,800 years – collecting water. Besides the huge opportunity costs, this puts them at risk of sexual abuse, disease, and missing out on school. Lack of access to water and sanitation impacts directly on the lives of women and girl children who are generally responsible for water collection, sanitation needs, and for taking care of family members who may be ill due to poor water and sanitation services. In addition, the education of girl children is hugely impacted by the challenges of menstruation.
Bolivia, Women and WASH
In recent years, the Government of Bolivia has made great efforts to improve access to safe drinking water and especially to basic sanitation. On July 28, 2010, acknowledging the United Nations resolution (64/292) on the human right to water and sanitation, Bolivia recognized that access to safe drinking water and sanitation are essential human rights. At the same time, investments in water and sanitation were made to fulfil the “2025 Patriotic Agenda” and the “2016 – 2020 Economic and Social Development Plan“. Both these documents provide the supporting framework for investments in water and sanitation at different operational levels. Due to this, 88% of the Bolivian population has access to an improved water source and 46% of the population has access to improved sanitation facilities.
But disparities continue to exist – women and girls in Bolivia face the brunt of poor water and sanitation access. These disparities may exist because of lack of access to services, but also because of the lack of participation of women in public processes around the provision of services, despite their being the main users of these services.
In Bolivia, being born a woman is considered to be a disadvantage. As a result of this social prejudice, participation of women in political decision-making is very low. Their participation increases at the local or neighborhood level because women, in terms of social and cultural norms, are considered responsible for hygiene and cleanliness of the home. The issue(s) of household water are designated to women and thus their participation at this level is accepted.
Aguatuya has more than 15 years’ experience in providing technical assistance to ensure sustainability and develop the capacities of the entities responsible for providing water and sanitation services to people (communities, committees, companies and municipalities). Currently, Aguatuya has a team of 20 people and works in five of Bolivia’s nine most important cities (Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, La Paz, Tarija, Sucre) with different projects, in which it always implements gender mainstreaming in productive, reproductive and community political roles. Aguatuya was born as the social arm of Plastiforte (a pipe company), so from the beginning the objective was to provide technical and management advice, to ensure that the provision of water and sanitation services is participatory, innovative and provides sustainable solutions to improve the quality of life of the population and protect the environment.
Deep wells of Molle Molle
Water Committees and Aguatuya
Water committees in Bolivia are citizen associations that were initiated as a response to the lack of drinking water service provision by the state. They take diverse forms of organization (committees, associations, cooperatives) and enable residents to have household water services through their own investments in, for example, drilling wells and implementing networks of pipes. The self-owned and self-managed services allow greater participation of women in decisions on payment of fees, tariffs, cost of entry into the system and investments for expansion.
For the last 15 years, Aguatuya has provided support to these water committees with technical assistance in the design of infrastructure engineering and capacity development for service management, to ensure that they have an efficient water distribution network, a high-quality well and a management system through home meters, and an affordable tariff that covers operation and maintenance. Users themselves own the infrastructure and are responsible for managing the service. Aguatuya partners with CIDRE in providing social loans for water services. Together, Aguatuya and CIDRE have been able to support the implementation of number of water committees that provide families with 24-hour water services.
Community Water Management: The Case of the Molle Molle Central Water Committee
The Molle Molle Central water committee in Tiquipaya, Cochabamba, is comprised of a neighborhood of 300 families that did not have water services. In 2001 they began working with Aguatuya and CIDRE. Aguatuya provided technical assistance in the design of the drinking water network, which includes tap and meters for each house. CIDRE, for its part, provided credit that allowed the committee to finance the drilling of their wells and the implementation of the entire drinking water system.
Two members of the community stand in front of the information board of the Molle Molle water committee
Aguatuya also provides the committee with training in sustainable management of the system. Thanks to the efficient administration of the water committee, the community has been able to pay off the CIDRE credit each month.
Sonia Mendoza, a leader in her community, has been in charge of the administration of the Molle Molle water system for 18 years. During this time, she has implemented a transparent administrative system that reports regularly to users on the management of finances including expenses, payments for energy services and the monthly payment of financing costs. The monthly water rate that families pay according to their consumption generates sufficient income to ensure the sustainability of the service. Sonia works in coordination with the board of directors and through the treasurer to whom she is responsible for reviewing and reporting to the assembly of members.
As an administrator Sonia is responsible to engage with water users, to charge fees, to bill users, to register water users, and to receive requests and complaints from users. She is also monitors the work of the plumber who is responsible for meter readings and repairs, and manages the hiring of labor if excavations are needed. Sonia has been run the system since its inception. She believes that being a woman increases her social interaction and gives her a better understanding of community needs.
Sonia Mendoza attending to a water user
This generates an advantage that leads to the community being more cohesive so that more improvements can be made in the neighborhood.
Sonia expresses that she has never felt discriminated against because of being a woman. But she is quick to mention that although she is the administrator, they don’t call her “administrator”, they always call her ‘secretary’, despite the president repeatedly clarifying to them that “it’s not the secretary, it’s the water administrator”. But this doesn’t affect her – it’s only the name of the position, and she has never felt that they underestimate her ability because she is a woman.
The water committee has been able to influence other important activities in the neighborhood, such as creating a mothers club where they meet to give talks or courses. Currently they are working on creating a health care point for the neighborhood.
In the water committee, Sonia makes sure that women participate more, identify problems, propose solutions or give ideas. Overall, women participate more and are more active than the men, but the highest positions on the board such as president or vice-president have always been held by men.
Carlos Salazar, former president of Molle Molle Central, comments: Many water committees fail to manage their water distribution and collection systems. Our success is due to our administrator Sonia Mendoza, who with her youth and ability has achieved an honest and transparent administration, the look of a woman in matters of distribution of resources is usually more fair and accurate.
Women as managers and not carriers
Women have an important role in water management and in ensuring access to water, as well as overall water governance – given their knowledge and experience as the primary water decision-makers at household level. As mentioned – women are the providers (for cooking, cleaning, hygiene, livestock, crops and small business) and know intimately their water and sanitation needs. It therefore makes sense that they have the wherewithal to manage water resources and systems better – given how they understand, value and prioritize the resource so well.
Increasing the inclusion of women in governance structures is an important and desirable policy in itself, but literature also shows that an important extended effect is reduced corruption in society.
Access to adequate water and sanitation empowers people and communities. It helps to transform gender relations and support women and girls as agents of change. 
The issue of access to water in Cochabamba is a decades old problem. The municipal water company does not have the capacity to serve the population due to various issues, including limited financial and technical capacity. Neighborhoods of the city were therefore organized to provide their own water services based on contributions from each family that allowed them to drill a well and build a water network with sinks. (This is the typical Cochabambino case, there must be more than 500 water committees in the city).
Although in the last 10 years the state of Bolivia has made many more investments in water and sanitation issues, in order to comply with SDG 6, solutions of organization and civil participation will continue to be needed. And these civil or community organizations clearly provide greater opportunities for women’s active participation in water and sanitation issues that otherwise would not be taken into account.
Anand Swamy & Stephen Knack & Young Lee & Omar Azfar, 2000. “Gender and Corruption,” Center for Development Economics 158, Department of Economics, Williams College.
 Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000-2017. Special focus on inequalities. New York: United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization, 2019.
 CIDRE IFD is a non-profit civil association that works to improve the standard of living through the intermediation of financial services in general, with ethics, sustainability and inclusion.
 Sonia works every morning in the office and receives people. She takes into account everything that is presented to her and suggests it to the board. Given that the women are the ones who are paying for water services defined by societal gender roles, she ensures that their demands are forwarded to the board ensuring their indirect participation.