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What being bold for change means for WASH this International Women’s Day

Posted 7 Mar 2017 by Chelsea Huggett and Jane Wilbur

Tackling gender inequalities in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) can have far-reaching effects on communities, if the potential is leveraged. Chelsea Huggett, Equity and Inclusion Rights Advisor at WaterAid Australia, and Jane Wilbur, Equality, Inclusion and Rights Advisor at WaterAid, suggest how we can start small to tackle the big issues.

Small changes can have huge impacts. Last Friday, a colleague in Timor-Leste sent this:

“I am amazed with my husband after (gender) sessions that talked about equal works between men and women. It’s not dramatic change yet, but in many occasions he starts to ask me on what (house) works I’m doing and without talking much he starts taking one or two responsibilities. He is also looking after our children more often, helping them to take a shower or cleaning them after toilet.” (Female community member, Liquica)

Our humble gender sessions were having a humble impact. Including a focus on gender relations in our community mobilisation activities works! This had us reflecting that being bold for change is about starting small, but facing the big issues.

Sanou, a community organiser in Burkina Faso.
Sanou, a community organiser in Bagassi, Burkina Faso: "It is said that poverty has a female face."

WASH work can and does impact gender equality

There is enormous potential for WASH people to contribute to gender equality. We can positively impact on women’s and girls’ (and men’s and boys’) lives directly by fulfilling their WASH rights. But we can go a lot further. In the process we can empower women and girls, and shift harmful gender norms and power imbalances. Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) efforts to date have not always leveraged this potential.

Often the focus of ensuring gender equality in WASH programmes is on quotas of women on water user committees, rather than thinking about the role those women have. Are they treasurers, secretaries with little influence over decisions? Or are they in positions of leadership?

On a recent trip to Bangladesh, we saw how going beyond quotas can impact on communities. We visited both WaterAid and the Institute of Development Affairs’ work in the Tea Gardens. They went beyond the Government’s 50% quota of women on community management committees and recruited women into influential positions, such as water user committee chairperson. They focused on helping women (and men) in the water user committee gain the confidence and skills to negotiate with different people, including authorities, and understand how to drive change within political systems. With these skills the committee moved the local government to build roads and a Hindu temple, and even give financial support to older women and widows in their area.

The women even changed the way men think of them:

“Before, we thought women will cook food, take care of the children. We didn’t think they could take part in decision-making. Now we feel women can do and can do leadership. Women are better at negotiating than us!” (Male WASH Committee member).

We must all strive for gender equality. Lack of it means women’s and girls’ needs go unmet, and development is held back for all. To put it matter-of-factly:

“The lack of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities that meet women and girls’ needs can be largely attributed to the absence of women’s participation in decision-making and planning.” – Mr Léo Heller, the second Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, 2016.

Global momentum

  • Globally there is renewed momentum for WASH to address gender equality and women’s empowerment: WASH practitioners are sharpening their understanding of the nexus between gender equality and WASH.  
  • More and more attention is being given to menstrual hygiene management by development professionals, policy- and decision-makers, donors and the media. 
  • WASH organisations are partnering more with women’s rights groups.  
  • Overall as a sector we are recognising that the rights water and sanitation can be a vehicle by which to achieve greater equality in the world.

WaterAid and the Institute for Sustainable Futures produced a paper exploring the gender dimensions of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on WASH and highlighting how SDG 5 (on gender equality) intrinsically links to WASH.

Léo Heller (quoted above), recently wrote a fabulous report on gender equality in the human rights to water and sanitation. It included this great example of how claiming rights in front of courts can begin to change social and cultural attitudes:

‘Recently, a group of students asked the Supreme Court of India whether menstruation could be a criterion for denying women of a certain age the right to enter a temple and worship in it. The Supreme Court addressed the [……] administration of the Sabarimala temple: “If men can go till a point (near the temple) without undertaking austere activities, why can’t women go? … Are you associating menstruation with impurity? You are making a classification. Can a biological phenomenon be a reason for discrimination? All practices are acceptable till there is no distinction between genders.”’

Last September the Australian Government announced a new 'Water for Women' initiative, committing $100 million over five years to improve access to safe and affordable WASH across the Asia Pacific region. Gender equality and social inclusion is a core focus of the initiative, as reads the announcement, ‘this makes sense for the sustainability of aid program outcomes and ensuring long term impacts’.

Men gathered in a circle talking.
Men on the water user committee talking about how women participate in it.

How do we keep the ball rolling?

The WASH sector’s renewed focus feels momentous and exciting. In being ‘Bold for Change’ how do we keep up the momentum?

  1. We can provide greater leadership opportunities for women in the water sector. 
  2. We can foster female entrepreneurs in sanitation marketing. 
  3. In our programmes we can talk explicitly about gender inequality with communities and families.  
  4. In our organisations we can build knowledge and expertise on reducing violence against women.  
  5. We can think about women and girls with disabilities, women from disadvantaged caste groups, older women and widows.  
  6. We can start to shift socially constructed gender norms by talking about gender issues. 
  7. We can implement WASH in a way which gets right to the heart of gender inequality.

We can do all these things. But only if we can be #BoldForChange.

Chelsea Huggett is Equity and Inclusion Rights Advisor at WaterAid Australia. Jane Wilbur is Equality, Inclusion and Rights Advisor at WaterAid and tweets as @janewilbur

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