The economic logic of a gendered WASH approach

The economic logic of a gendered WASH approach

According to a study conducted by Oxfam in 2016, women carry out 2.5 times as much unpaid work as men, and globally, this work is worth around $10 trillion a year. $10 trillion is in no way a number that can be ignored! Why are women mostly expected to be responsible for household chores like cleaning, cooking and rearing babies? The answer is simple: household work is still deemed to be ‘women’s work’.

The linguistic transition from housewife to homemaker has done little to change or even challenge the traditional norms that women are boxed into. The same study shows that in Asia alone 75% of women’s work is performed in the informal economy, without access to benefits such as sick pay or maternity leave. Women’s work at home and beyond largely contributes to economic growth and yet, lack of equity in pay, position or rights is still a prevalent issue.

Equal access to opportunities

Governments in many parts of the world have been pressing for gender rights, be it legal, or political and the need for equal access to opportunities, when it comes to education, healthcare, and financial inclusion. Women cannot properly excel professionally or personally without the right to their own bodies, access to proper treatment and facilities or the freedom to speak openly about menstruation issues. At SNV, we design impact-oriented and scalable programmes, and we believe that girls' educational performance can be directly improved through better menstrual hygiene management (MHM). Our Girls in Control approach, as part of our Sustainable Sanitation & Hygiene for All product, focuses on the provision of appropriate, girl-friendly water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools, timely information about MHM and improved access to sanitary materials. Through a programme funded by WaterAid and UNICEF, we are tackling the MHM problem amongst schoolgirls in rural and peri-urban areas of Ethiopia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

According to a UNICEF study, "In much of the world, women and girls are traditionally responsible for domestic water supply and sanitation, and maintaining a hygienic home environment. As managers at the household level, women also have a higher stake in the improvement of water and sanitation services and in sustaining facilities." The study also shows that because women are the ones responsible for fetching water, they miss out on opportunities in education, leisure time and other productive activities. And it is the lack of proper water supplies and toilets in schools that cause girls’ drop-out rates to be high, particularly when menstruating. In addition, a WaterAid study states that "A lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene affects women disproportionally, due to both biological and cultural factors. WASH is also essential for their social and economic development, contributing towards gender equality and the realisation of their rights."

WASH at work

During a recent field visit as part of SNV’s urban sanitation & hygiene programme in Bangladesh (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation & UK DFID), we spoke to many pit cleaners who are used to manual emptying on a day-to-day basis. Their problems are manifold; not only do they receive minimum payment, but they have no security or even dignity within the community. Lack of awareness and behaviour change issues are also constant struggles among the septic tank cleaners themselves, as is lack of proper work gear. For the female pit cleaners, their burdens are further aggravated when menstruating as they are not given and cannot afford proper sanitary wear, and there are no appropriate sanitation facilities within their work premises.

A programme where we focus on women in the workplace is "Working with Women", also in Bangladesh and funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. We implement gender-friendly, affordable and quality sexual reproductive health rights (SRHR) services within or near garment factories. Orientation on menstrual hygiene has also been instrumental in creating a supply and demand mechanism for keeping the female workers healthy and functional during menstruation. The garment industry is a mainstay of the Bangladesh economy, with millions of women working in the field and contributing to nearly 80% of the country's annual export revenues.

In Women’s role in economic development, Ester Boserup, Danish economist and writer, talks about the mechanisms needed in the workplace to ensure women’s participation in the modern day labor force. But will they be enough to achieve gender equality in our lifetime? To ensure women’s equal participation both in the informal and formal sector, there are certain basic rights that will need to be warranted.

Equity in rights and proper access to WASH services for women are only some of the many layers of the gender equity conversation. So let’s #beboldforchange and address those issues that prevent women from achieving their full potential!