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Gender, water and sanitation: Some thoughts for International Women’s Day 2014

While I’ve always prided myself in being gender-aware and gender-sensitive, I have to admit that it wasn’t until my good friend Janni Aragon (University of Victoria, Political Science) gave a guest lecture in my Public Policy class, early in my teaching days, on gender and environmental issues. Janni reminded me (and my students) about the many struggles that women face on an everyday basis. I’m well aware that environmental studies have also been perceived as “feminized” in that taking care of the environment has also been seen as a more “nurturing” activity and thus one proper for women. But strangely enough, I don’t think we have studied environmental issues through a gender lens enough. The intersections of gender and environment, gender and water and gender and sanitation are many, although gender issues do not only refer to women (my friend Ed Carr recently published a co-authored paper on gender and adaptation to climatic change that I believe will pave the road for further and much needed work on this important and understudied topic). I myself have started doing some work on gender and sanitation policy in Mexico, particularly as it relates to menstrual hygiene management.

Photo credit: UNICEF Ethiopia

In recent years the connections between gender and sanitation have been perceived by a number of organizations, who have been doing some excellent work. The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council recently partnered with the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to undertake an event to raise awareness on gender, human rights and sanitation. The UNESCO Institute for Water Education (UNESCO-IHE) organized an event on gender and water and emergency responses this year. WaterAid, another organization whose work I follow closely, recently organized a walk and shared some terrifying statistics on the impact of lack of proper sanitation and water poverty on women:

There are also 1.25 billion women and girls around the world without proper toilets, and many associated burdens. This is a crisis in health, in education, in economic development and in gender equality that simply cannot continue,” said Ms Wheen.

Some notable statistics on women and water and sanitation:
• An estimated 384 million women and girls are without safe water, and 1.25 billion do not have improved sanitation.
• Some 526 million women are forced to defecate in the open for lack of facilities.
• Women and girls without toilets spend an estimated 97 billion hours each year trying to find a safe place to go.
• Average primary school completion rates for boys in sub-Saharan Africa stand at 56%, but only 46% for girls.

Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection

Think about it. An estimated 200 million work hours are spent by women collecting water for their households. Women bear the brunt of water collection spending up to 5 hours every day on this task. Given that much of their time is spent in water-fetching, many girls in developing countries often skip school as they are needed at home. Even worse, these young women often skip school during their menstruating days as they lack the dignity of a latrine to relieve themselves and water to clean up. When these girls and women are forced to relieve themselves in the dark, they become targets for potential sexual violence and/or physical attacks. Thus the need for a comprehensive, global menstrual hygiene management plan.

As I wrote last year, we still have a long ways to go to make solid advances in gender and sanitation. On International Women’s Day, here is to a more inclusive and comprehensive plan to address gender issues in water and sanitation governance.

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Posted in academia, bridging academia and practice, sanitation, wastewater, water governance, water policy.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. The behavioral determinants of change in sanitation governance – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on July 31, 2014

    […] have to admit that when I read the piece, I thought that it was stating the obvious. I’ve written variants of this argument before. You can’t change sanitation if you only focus on one aspect of the […]

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