Gender perspectives on sanitation for sustainable development

The woman on right serves as the caretaker of a public sanitation facility that has separate toilets and showers for men and women in Liberia. Safe, private and easily accessible sanitation reduces the risk of assaults against women and girls. Photo by: ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

Every year on Nov. 19, the international community celebrates World Toilet Day to create awareness about the lack of access to basic sanitation currently affecting 2.5 billion people.

This year’s theme is “Equality and Dignity.” Different stakeholders will convene at the United Nations headquarters in New York to explore, among other issues, the linkages between gender-based violence and sanitation, highlighting the incidence of increased vulnerability to all forms of violence for women and girls when there is a short supply of safe, private and easily accessible sanitation.

U.N. Women leads the global effort to end all forms of violence against women. This month, the organization places emphasis on ending violence against women by featuring facts, stories, audiovisual and social media content, and calling for action against this grave human rights violation, as part of a yearlong campaign leading up to the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action called “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity — Picture It!

As we accelerate efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and draft a solid post-2015 development agenda, we have a historic opportunity to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment. Addressing the needs of women and girls with regard to proper sanitation needs to be a vital component. Why? Because women and girls are disproportionately affected by inadequate access to sanitation due to a number of physiological, social and cultural factors. These challenges cannot be overcome without addressing the correlation between sanitation and women’s vulnerability to gender-based violence.

Overall, inadequate access to sanitation unequally affects women and girls in many of the following ways: Unhygienic public toilets and latrines threaten the health of women and girls who are prone to reproductive tract infections caused by poor sanitation; during menstruation, pregnancy and postnatal stages, the need for adequate sanitation becomes even more critical; and, when sanitation facilities are available, it tends to be women who bear cleaning responsibilities and disposal of human waste such as “manual scavengers,” making them susceptible to disease.

When women and girls do not have access to private sanitation facilities, they resort to open areas, find a remote (often unprotected and hidden) place or travel a distance to where facilities exist.

Not only does this cause women and girls to suffer indignity, severe health risks, fear, shame and ostracism, but it increases their risk of multiple abuses including harassment, bullying,  physical and sexual assault, inappropriate touching and other nonconsensual sexual acts, including rape. This causes individual harm, curtailing their freedom of mobility, limiting their productive activities, and denying them full participation in community matters and decision-making that have a bearing on their lives — while the lack of adequate sanitary facilities in schools inhibits access to education.

These overlapping challenges must be recognized by development planners, the water and sanitation community and the violence-against-women community. And, in order to realize universal access to water and sanitation, necessary and sufficient action is vital.

Advocacy at all levels is required to bring this issue to the attention of the following: local leaders who decide where and how facilities will be constructed, those managing and technically implementing programs, community members who are implicated (teachers, health professionals, market associations, etc.), and women and girls to help identify safety issues, risks and solutions.

Other important policy actions include analyzing and responding to vulnerabilities to violence in sanitation-related policies, strategies, plans, budgets and systems; building the capacity of staff and partners; consulting with gender-based violence specialists to support an appropriate response in the sector; designing, constructing and managing infrastructure to account for and reduce vulnerabilities; ensuring that community members have adequate information on safety linked to water and sanitation and hygiene and have access to reporting and recourse mechanisms; and most importantly, ensuring that women and girls, especially those who may be marginalized are consulted and part of the planning processes.

Social movements, like the “No Toilet, No Bride” initiative in India, are helping to alter behavior, social and cultural norms.

Also critical is the acknowledgement that violence occurs fundamentally because women and girls have less power in society and because of the gender discrimination they face. It is not enough to only address the immediate needs within water and sanitation. These key measures must be accompanied by the broader and more comprehensive work that is required to address violence against women and girls. This requires governments to proactively and concretely invest in structural and institutional change and social transformation that can undo the systemic gender inequality and discrimination that tolerate and allow abuse.

Access to safe and hygienic sanitation for all — women and men, boys and girls — is not only a human right. … It is also smart economics. The World Bank makes a strong statement in this regard, outlining 17-55 percent rates of return to investments in sanitation. Investing in proper sanitation thus does not only promote public health and safety, but also makes economic sense and brings about multiple social and economic benefits like increased school attendance and retention. At the same time, the economic impacts of not investing in sanitation are significant. Ensuring access to adequate sanitation is key for economic growth and development, and for freedom from violence.

It is important to ensure public investments in sanitation so that these basic rights are realized for all.  But as has been stressed before, “universal” or “for all” cannot be gender-blind. Provision and delivery of these goods and services must be done in ways that are cognizant of the specific needs of women and girls and the roles they play.

Gender equality and access to clean, safe and private sanitation, must be prioritized in the post-2015 development agenda, taking into account the particular needs of women and girls to secure economic progress, and ensure a life of dignity and safety for all.

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About the author

  • Begona lasagabaster

    Begoña Lasagabaster

    Begoña Lasagabaster is acting head of U.N. Women's policy division, prior to which she was the chief of the leadership and governance section. With over 20 years of professional experience, she was a member of the Spanish parliament for 12 years and later on the European Parliament, serving on several of its committees. Lasagabaster has helped establish more than 150 laws in areas of women's rights, gender equality law, elimination of violence against women, international development and cooperation, justice, and economic and social rights.