The symbiosis of universal WASH and gender equality

The symbiosis of universal WASH and gender equality

On March 8 the world celebrated International Women’s Day and on 22 March it was World Water Day. While these international days of action are coincidentally celebrated just two weeks apart, the connection between them is stark and very much on the global development agenda. SDG 5 (Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) and SDG 6 (Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all) sit side by side, and for very good reason. WASH underpins and is a pre-requisite for the health and wellbeing of all people, including women and girls.

Women and girls and gender-discriminated people still endure the burden of inadequate WASH facilities in health care centres, in schools, in public spaces and in their own homes. As Léo Heller, the second Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, reported to the United Nations General Assembly in 2016, “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”. And yet, the economic benefits of providing safely managed and accessible WASH services to all those who currently do not have them would be three to six times greater than the costs.

A lack of safe and private toilet facilities puts women and gender-discriminated peoples in danger. Their health and livelihoods are compromised, and their ability to attend school or work is undermined - especially during menstruation. Further challenges arise when women fall pregnant and have children, as inadequate WASH increases the risk of maternal, neonatal and childhood illness and death. In a sample of 54 low-income countries, 38% of healthcare facilities lacked a clean water supply, and almost one in five lack improved sanitation facilities. Good nutrition is dependent on safely managed WASH facilities. The World Health Organization estimates that 50% of undernutrition (a major form of malnutrition) is associated with infections caused by unsafe water, poor sanitation and unhygienic practices, including not washing hands with soap. Health, economic development and environmental protection is dependent on safely managed water and sanitation.

Spending only a small amount of overall aid on something as critical, essential and non-negotiable as clean water and a safe and hygienic place to go to the toilet and management of human waste seems strikingly disproportionate. However on World Water Day, it’s time to reflect on the achievements as well as our collective vision for a world where everybody (including and especially women and girls) has access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene facilities and services – and the extra commitment needed to get there.

This is an excerpt from a blog written by Melita Grant - Senior Research Consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney in collaboration with members from the Australian WASH Reference Group. SNV has a long term partnership with ISF-UTS focused on knowledge and learning to improve practice and contribute to the WASH sector knowledge and evidence.