Water, sanitation and hygiene – A step to end gender-based discrimination – Women Deliver

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December 3, 2017 Ommera Ahmed, Advocacy Coordinator and Savio Carvalho, Global Campaign Director WaterAid

Water, sanitation and hygiene – A step to end gender-based discrimination


When you go to the toilet, or walk to buy a bottle of water, do you fear being physically or sexually attacked? Unfortunately, this is the shocking reality for many women and girls around the world for whom collecting water, or using the toilet, can be dangerous activities. These daily acts - which many of us take for granted - can put women, girls and boys at risk of harassment and assault.

To mark World Toilet Day in November, WaterAid launched its annual ‘The State of the World’s Toilets’ report. The report highlighted that 1 in 3 girls and women around the world do not have a decent toilet of their own. This statistic, 1 in 3, is the very same as the number of women and girls who experience physical, sexual or emotional abuse in their lifetimes. When women, girls and boys do not have access to a safe toilet, they may have to walk to remote locations, or use inadequate facilities after dark, which puts them at risk of harassment, sexual assault and even rape. From slums to villages, urban settings to refugee camps, this is a pervasive issue, magnifying the vulnerabilities of women and girls and proving yet again how insidious gender inequity really is. Other marginalised groups, such as transgender or disabled people, also experience harassment or assault when using toilets – their specific needs must also be taken into consideration.

An estimated 446 million women around the world have no choice but to defecate in the open

Given the taboos around defecation and menstruation, and the frequent lack of privacy, women and girls may delay drinking and eating in order to wait until nightfall to relieve themselves, to avoid putting themselves at risk. This can lead to infections and other health problems. Imagine weighing up the threat of violent attack at night and potential health risks, against the humiliation of urinating or defecating in the open during the day. This is an impossible choice that no one should be forced to make.

This is about gender inequality

Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is not only a highly gendered issue but also an issue of human rights and dignity. We’re not only talking about health, physical and psychological risks, it’s also about why the burden of collecting water for the household falls disproportionately on women and girls, and why their needs aren’t recognised or respected. It is about women’s mobility, control of when and where they can relieve themselves and the blatant demeaning of their personhood. This extends to lack of justice: the shame and fear women and girls experience prevent them from reporting the crime, and in many cases a gender-discriminatory police force and legal system prevents perpetrators from being held to account. It is a vicious cycle—and a lack of toilets that are safe, private, and acceptable to women and girls is just one example of the danger presented by gender inequality.

With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) governments have committed to ensure gender equality, along with safe water, sanitation and hygiene for everyone, everywhere by 2030. Both are interconnected - to end violence against women and girls we must ensure that they are not vulnerable when accessing safe water and sanitation. And, working with women and girls to ensure governments provide toilets and water points that enhance their sense of safety in public spaces, schools and homes can mitigate the risks of violence. These efforts must work from both ends to meet in a middle that enhances gender equality and female empowerment for all.

Progress on the WASH Goal – SDG 6 – will be reviewed at the UN’s High Level Political Forum in July 2018. This is an unprecedented opportunity to demand urgent action from governments. This in practice includes providing safe toilets and access to water.

Credit: WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala

Safe toilets are a start, but we need to get to the root cause

Yes, safe toilets will help protect women and girls. They provide privacy and dignity. However, this alone won’t stop violence against women, nor increase their mobility and agency. Women and girls are subjected to these human rights violations on a daily basis due to societal norms, which deprive them of their voice and influence, keep them from owning and controlling resources or participating in decision-making, and devalue their experiences of violence and other outcomes of gender-based discrimination.

We can make safe toilets a reality for millions -- well-lit, with latches and within easy reach. The same holds true for water points like boreholes, which may be dug in isolated areas, thereby increasing the risk of violence. However, if we are to remove barriers to the long-term realisation of women’s rights to dignity, safety and equality, then we must all work together on the root cause, regardless of what sector we focus on, to tackle the pervasive and deeply embedded social norms which devalue women and deny them a voice. The denial of women’s empowerment and equality allows partners, families, communities and authorities to turn a blind eye to violence, and deny women and girls their basic human rights, including access to a safe toilet.

All development interventions need to include an ongoing dialogue with communities to challenge gender divisions of labour, power and control, lack of women’s bodily autonomy, as well as traditionally-defined norms. Awareness-raising campaigns and open discussions with men and boys, and community and religious leaders are key to transforming perceptions of gender roles. Crucially, in order to bolster women and girls’ agency they must have the space to articulate their rights, priorities and perspective, challenge stereotypes and participate in decision-making.

It is an outrage that women and girls are still facing this situation in 2017. Governments have promised to provide safe water, sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030 – this is already decades late, however encouraging steps are being taken in the right direction. Governments must act urgently to fulfil their commitments and support projects and programmes which involve women in project design, and communities in awareness raising. By working together, we can bring about lasting positive change for women and girls - there is no time to wait.

Views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect that of any organisation.

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