The Symbiosis of Universal WASH and Gender Equality

Topics Gender | Health | Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
World Water Day
ISF researchers with female masons investigating the role of woman in sanitation entrepreneurship. Photo credit: ISF-UTS

Two weeks ago (on March 8th) the world celebrated International Women’s Day (#BeBoldForChange) and today is World Water Day (#WorldWaterDay).  While these two international days of action are coincidently celebrated just two weeks apart, the connection between them is stark and very much on the global development agenda. Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) and Sustainable Development Goal 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.

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.
Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation


Australia’s contribution

Australia is positioning itself as a global leader in connecting gender equality outcomes with WASH – and the Australian NGO sector working in this space is active and works collaboratively with governments around the world to achieve these dual and mutually reinforcing aims. The Australian Aid program supports WASH programs with an explicit focus on gender equality, and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has recognised the importance of WASH as it relates to women and girls for advancing genuine development in our region.

 The Australian Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Reference Group is a community of practice of dedicated civil-society organisations (CSOs) and research institutions who are working together to enhance Australian-based sanitation and water initiatives overseas. Its members are responsible for improving WASH services for millions of people in our region.  For example, CSOs that are part of the Australian Government’s CS WASH Fund are currently influencing the knowledge, capacity and skills of more than 20,500 WASH sector “Change Agents” (typically institutional or community actors), who will in turn deliver or support improved WASH services for up to 3.66 million beneficiaries in poor  communities on a sustainable basis. This World Water Day, the sector will be highlighting the important work that is being done to advance gender equality and WASH, while calling on even more support and commitment from all sectors to meet the existing challenges in our region and beyond.

Research for improved WASH

Australian research organisations are playing a significant role in supporting the uptake of evidence-based practice in the WASH sector. For example, the Institute for Sustainable Futures – University of Technology Sydney (ISF-UTS) partnered with Plan International Australia to examine the strategic gender outcomes of the Gender and WASH Monitoring Tool (GWMT) that Plan developed and use in their programming. The research explored the extent to which applying the tool contributed to changed gender relations when used as part of regular WASH project monitoring activities. The International Water Centre has recently launched outputs from its ‘Fostering WaSH marketing exchanges in informal Melanesian settlements’ initiative conducted in collaboration with Live and Learn. This project explored different WASH marketing systems suited to local demand and conditions and the functions and roles of the enabling environment actors, both within and outside communities.

High Level Panel on Water

Our Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is one of 11 sitting Heads of State and Government making up the  High Level Panel on Water that was created by the United Nations in 2016 to ‘champion a comprehensive, inclusive and collaborative way of developing and managing water resources, and improving water and sanitation related services’. Last September, our PM announced in New York that Australia was launching an additional $100 million to provide water and sanitation through a new ‘Water for Women’ initiative. At the same time, the Australian Water Partnership and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade commissioned a report (co-written by ISF-UTS and WaterAid) on how to integrate gender equality outcomes into the High Level Panel on Water Action Plan which was submitted to the Panel during meetings in Budapest in late 2016.  This report, “Gender and SDG6: The Critical Connection” looks at how gender inequalities are necessary to address in all dimensions of WASH and the governance of water resources, calling on all governments to pay special attention to including gender discriminated peoples in planning and delivery of water, sanitation and hygiene programs.

 As important as these contributions are to ensuring that every person on this planet enjoys decent WASH facilities necessary for a healthy life, some big gaps still exist – and the poorest of the poor are slipping through these gaps. As Bob McMullan and Robin Davies have recently found in their analysis of WASH investments in the context of the Australian Aid budget, a ‘serious and long-term financial commitment to water and sanitation as a core, binding investment priority for Australian aid is still needed’. Australia sits under its OECD counterparts with just 3.4% of bilateral aid allocated to water and sanitation, in comparison to an average of 3.9% for all OECD donors. In other words, less than $4 in every $100 of overall aid spending on something as critical, essential and not-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 this 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 article was co-written by the Australian WASH Reference Group which includes members from the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney (ISF-UTS); Plan Australia, World Vision Australia, WaterAid, , International Water Centre, and Engineers Without Borders.