Affiliated organisation: UN Women
Site of publication: unwomen.org
Type of publication: Issue Brief
Date of publication: 2018
Currently, 2.1 billion people lack safely managed drinking water and 4.5 billion lack safely managed sanitation services.
When safe drinking water is not available on household premises, the burden of water collection and treatment falls largely on the shoulders of women and girls.
While women’s participation in water governance and the promotion of safe sanitation has long been encouraged, this engagement has not always translated into better services for themselves; and decisions on ‘big water’ issues remain largely gender-blind.
Universal access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene: a catalyst for change
For SDG 6 on safe water and sanitation, the multiple linkages to other goals of the 2030 Agenda have been widely recognized and several of these links have important gender dimensions. For example:
- Safe water, sanitation and hygiene is an essential ingredient for progress on several health-related targets (SDG 3), including reducing child mortality and deaths from WASH-related diseases.
- Reducing the time spent on water collection and improving school sanitation is also important for achieving quality education and effective learning outcomes among girls (SDG 4).
- Among adult women, investments in water and sanitation can free up time and facilitate access to a wider range of employment opportunities (SDGs 1 and 8).
- WASH is also an essential part of inclusive urbanization and slum up-grading (SDG 11)
Towards gender-responsive WASH: linking SDGs 5 and 6
WASH interventions must be based on a robust understanding of gender-specific needs and of the barriers that women and girls face when striving to realize their rights to safe water and sanitation.
When safe drinking water is not available on household premises, the burden of water collection and treatment falls largely on the shoulders of women and girls
The targets under SDG5 provide important guidance in this regard: Ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls; Eliminating violence against women and girls; Recognizing unpaid care and domestic work; Full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership; Access to sexual and reproductive health; Equal rights to economic resources.
From principle to practice
Decades of experience show that WASH interventions cannot be successful if women’s and girls’ needs are neglected. Three areas will be critical for accelerating progress towards gender responsive WASH: Strengthening meaningful participation; Transforming infrastructure and service delivery for gender equality; Improving data on gender and WASH for effective monitoring.
Strengthening meaningful participation
Making WASH gender-responsive requires new forms of public engagement in infrastructure decision-making, especially with women and girls from socially excluded groups in peri-urban areas or isolated rural settlements.
Early interventions focused on women and water did indeed center on participation. This process-oriented involvement, however, did not always make WASH facilities more accessible or affordable to women and girls, while often increasing their workloads. Women have also often been at the forefront of outreach and promotion activities for safe sanitation at the community level.
Yet, sanitation interventions have rarely considered women’s voices or concerns when it comes to the design of latrines or their maintenance systems. Incorporating the unique needs of women and girls into sanitary systems will require more than engaging women’s groups for health promotion activities during the implementation stage.
Transforming infrastructure and service delivery for gender equality
In terms of water service modalities, continuous piped water at the household level has the greatest health benefits and lowest drudgery costs. Extending the reach of water grids to underserved communities is hence an important priority.
Making WASH gender-responsive requires new forms of public engagement in infrastructure decision-making, especially with women and girls from socially excluded groups in peri-urban areas or isolated rural settlements
In the area of sanitation, efforts to eliminate open defecation have focused largely on the provision and generation of demand for private latrines. But the availability of safely managed sanitation facilities in public spaces is just as critical. When defining the location of public latrines, the need for privacy must be carefully balanced against potentially dangerous isolation that may increase the risk of violence and harassment.
Menstrual hygiene management (MHM) must become an integral and cross-cutting component of all sanitation interventions. Translating this acknowledgement into actual progress for women and girls requires age-appropriate education, breaking the silence around menstruation to eliminate taboos and social stigma, and increasing access to affordable and acceptable MHM products.
A much-ignored aspect of safe and dignified sanitation is the protection of workers, Sanitation initiatives that increase the coverage of pit latrines, but do not account for the increased health risks and violence that is sometimes visited on those who empty those pits, will fail at meeting the 2030 Agenda’s principles of dignity, equality and non-discrimination.
Improving data on gender and WASH
The lack of gender-specific indicators and disaggregated WASH data is an important concern for monitoring progress on the SDGs.
The Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) has added disaggregation at the subnational level and highlighted the need for distinction between slums and formal urban settlements as well as between ‘disadvantaged groups and the general population’. National surveys that routinely collect such disaggregated data remain scarce, however.
Menstrual hygiene management (MHM) must become an integral and cross-cutting component of all sanitation interventions. Translating this acknowledgement into actual progress for women and girls requires age-appropriate education, breaking the silence around menstruation to eliminate taboos and social stigma, and increasing access to affordable and acceptable MHM products
Another important innovation is that indicator 6.1.1 explicitly refers to ‘safely managed water services’, defined as those located on household premises. This is a more ambitious indicator than during the Millennial Development Goal (MDG) era. While this means that SDG 6 is more ambitious in terms of the level of service provision required, it does not directly monitor shifts in the water collection burden among household members (women and men, boys and girls).
If progress towards safe water and sanitation is to be monitored for all, more and better gender statistics and disaggregated data are needed.
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