Putting women centre stage

Putting women centre stage

“I can now use a toilet anytime I want!” Words that had a profound impact on me, that made me reflect on all the things I take for granted. Simple things to me like using a bathroom (we euphemistically call it), knowing that I can wash my hands with soap (only worrying about getting rid of a certain smell) and dry them with either a towel, hand dryer or paper towel. Which means that I forget that over 2,4 billion people worldwide (WHO/UNICEF 2015) do not have access to safe sanitation, and more than half of them are women!

The words that changed me were spoken by a woman from Waghimra in Ethiopia, as she talked about the change in her life due to the construction of a latrine close to her home. Given the severe drought they faced in the region, the almost bare land made it impossible to find a bush that would provide her with enough privacy to relieve herself. It’s even harder to imagine what it was like when she was on her menses and wanted to change, but simply had nowhere to hide because the house she lives in with her family is a single room.

Through our Sustainable Sanitation & Hygiene for All Results (SSH4A Results) programme, funded by DFID, we engage with communities to promote access to household latrines and improve their hygiene practices. We specifically target women with children through behavioural change communication activities (looking at what they do, why they do it and what would motivate them to change their behaviour) because they are the primary care givers in many of these communities. Unfortunately, women are often limited by socio-cultural practices and economic constraints. The realities that women face despite the different contexts we operate in, remain the same in most of these rural areas.

Every decision a woman makes (and I am not talking about using paper towels or hand sanitisers) has the potential to change the life of her family in many ways. It is therefore important that we keep women at the centre of access to sanitation by engaging with them at household level to understand their needs and ensuring their participation in community events, because we know that poor sanitation results in loss of lives. Statistics from WASHWatch.org tell us that around 315,000 children under the age of five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation. That’s almost 900 children per day or worse - one child every minute!

With a renewed sense of urgency, I look forward to my next visit to the region – hoping that my conversations with women will be different. On this International Women's Day, let’s be #boldforchange!