UN Recognizes Sanitation and Water as a Basic Right, US Abstains from Vote

Recently the United Nations General Assembly decided to adopt a resolution recognizing water and sanitation as a basic human right.

Even though resolutions about things like water and sanitation might not initially seem like explicitly feminist issues, I wrote on Akimbo that I consider this to be a huge win for women’s health, mostly because of all the connections that exist between clean water and sanitation and health benefits for women and girls in many regions of the world. This is true here in the U.S., but this is especially true in regions where women are tied to agricultural production (farming, picking, gathering) and where they bear the primary responsibility of gathering water necessary for families to bathe, cook, and clean (most developing countries). It’s also true because of the reality that women and girls are often made vulnerable to violence and sexual assault as they walk to gather clean water for their families. So I definitely saw this as a feminist win in the sense that it marks 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.


While most people agreed with me, there were a few noticeable exceptions- like oh, say, the United States. They chose to abstain from the vote, along with 40 other countries including some of the European and industrialized countries like Britain, Australia, Austria, Canada, Greece, Sweden, Japan, Israel, South Korea, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland, as well as some developing countries, including Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Zambia, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago.

So what gives with all the abstentions on a resolution that can bring so much good? It’s hard to say for certain why the resolution proved politically divisive, for different countries. On his reasons for abstaining from the vote, the US delegate said the resolution was “not reflective of existing international law; as there is no ‘right to water and sanitation’ in an international legal sense as described by this resolution.” Hmmm- sounds to me like a damn good reason to pass a resolution recognizing such a right.

While I am disappointed that so many countries—including the United States—abstained from voting, I’m nonetheless psyched that the resolution was ultimately passed despite politics and pettiness that might have gotten in the way. Because putting all that stuff aside, what really matters is that the effect of the resolution will have on women’s lives. And I think we can be confident that clean water and sanitation is something women around the world deserve.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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