Enabling women to be meaningful participants and leaders in rural community-based water and sanitation governance remains a challenge. While the benefits of and barriers to women's participation and leadership have been reported on, there is a limited understanding of the role of empowerment in addressing these challenges. To help bridge this knowledge gap, we used a household survey to measure men and women's empowerment in water and sanitation in the rural Tupiza watershed, Bolivia, and key informant interviews with women leaders to identify barriers to leadership. Overall, among survey respondents, fewer men than women were disempowered. Community-level factors, especially those related to comfort in speaking in community meetings and reporting service problems, contributed more to women's disempowerment, as did household-level factors related to work balance and input into decisions about who participates in community water and sanitation activities. Among interviewed community water leaders, many women felt their positions were costly to their households and reported challenges in obtaining technical training and local government assistance, which not only disempowered them as leaders but also likely tied to poor service delivery and related health outcomes in their communities. We discuss the implications of our findings for rural Bolivia and future research opportunities.

  • Among the first to assess the relationship between women's empowerment and participation in community-based water/sanitation.

  • Discomfort in speaking in community meetings and reporting service problems contributed to disempowerment.

  • Leaders disempowered by domestic workloads and lack of technical training and local government assistance.

  • Empowerment is key to improving participation and meeting gender and water/sanitation goals.

Graphical Abstract

Graphical Abstract
Graphical Abstract
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