Poor sanitation negatively affects health, as well as dignity. Women and girls, already often marginalized, are further disempowered and even put at risk because of a lack of sanitation facilities. Women and girls need access to private and secure areas to defecate. Where they do not exist, women often use the night as privacy, which exposes them to the risk of rape or other violence. Ignoring their natural bodily functions out of fear not only causes discomfort but also increases the likelihood of health problems such as urinary tract infections, chronic constipation or mental stress, especially during menses.
Access to appropriate and, most importantly, gender-sensitive WASH facilities would have a significant positive impact on both the daily lives and long-term prospects of millions of women and girls that are currently living without them. Efforts to improve WASH services not only benefit women; they benefit everyone.
In early 2014, WSSCC and UN Women launched a collaborative initiative called the Joint Programme on Gender, Hygiene and Sanitation. It involves strategic action combining the technical skills and expertise of the two organizations, which have different but complementary mandates, for a common aim. The shared objective is to make women's voices heard, to generate informed demand and to contribute to making their rights a reality. The Programme focuses on three main areas – policy change, knowledge and capacity strengthening, and action research – which will together reinforce a fourth area: inter-agency learning, because it is important to document this initiative, its successes and its challenges.
In most developing countries, women have the main responsibility for health, child care, hygiene education, water, and sanitation provision. They are most likely to know common habits and problems within a community, what kind of services are required, and where they should be built to be most effective.
Women should, therefore, be included in the planning, design, and implementation of WASH interventions. Involving them in community water and sanitation-related decisions can be an empowering experience. This can improve their status, creating opportunities for income generation, as well as providing them with other public and influential roles – thus potentially making gender equality a reality.
WSSCC advocates strongly for incorporating gender issues into WASH programmes, through targeted campaigns, workshops and trainings, and promotion of women leaders.