At this year’s Commission on the Status of Women, the plight of many women, girls and marginalized groups who face barriers to safely accessing water and sanitation (WASH) services in public spaces took center stage at a side event entitled, Empowerment of Women and Girls through Access to Public Services – including Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. The two-part event featured insights from representatives of the governments of Singapore, South Africa, Cameroon, Norway and India, as well as speakers from WASH organizations that operate in each of these countries. All shared their take on the roles of, and challenges faced by, States in delivering WASH as a public service, best practices and lessons they have learned from country programmes, and how to further elevate discussions on WASH services for women and girls as a key determinant of women’s empowerment.
Panel moderator and Permanent Representative of Singapore to the United Nations in New York, Ambassador Burhan Gafoor opened the session with words of inspiration, offering Singapore’s history of progressively improving WASH for all its citizens. He reminded the audience that the hurdles and complexities involved in realizing gender-inclusive, public WASH services can be overcome, as, “the experience of Singapore shows it can be done”.
Through recounting their personal experiences, panelists confirmed that the hurdles to gender-inclusive, public WASH services are indeed many – as are the roles which States must play in order to rectify gender-based imbalances.
Women and girls in rural areas are often saddled with the burden of compensating for poor WASH infrastructure. They must trek long distances fetching water for their families as their male counterparts work and attend school. This eats into time in which they could be studying or earning a living. As H.E. Marie Thérèse Abena Ondoa, Minister of Women’s Empowerment and the Family in Cameroon pointed out, “when boys and girls both come from school, the girl is the one going for water while the boy is preparing for the next day’s lesson”. Poor WASH services in schools also impact on girls’ ability to learn and attend lessons.
Such blockages to women and girls’ full participation in public life ultimately feed cycles of poverty. H.E. Sharon Pinky Kekana, the Deputy Minister of Communication in South Africa, noted that, “the poor spend more time looking for water than participating in the economy. The right to natural resources means the right to autonomy”.
The absence of WASH facilities and services built with gender and accessibility in mind, or WASH services altogether, can also leave women and girls open to dangers like gender-based violence. These dangers and difficulties are compounded for those who belong to marginalized groups. Merete Brattested, Secretary General of the Department for UN and Humanitarian Affairs of Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reminded the audience that, “marginalized people, women with children, refugees, disabled people – all are overlooked and face discrimination as they try to access and manage the safe WASH services they need”.
Beyond this list of issues, panelists also offered insight on the successes and lessons learned from practices they have seen employed in their own countries.
Panelists agreed that solid policies on addressing these issues and improving gender-inclusivity in public WASH services exist. K. Nagaraj Naidu, the Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, added that states must bring their actions and legislation in line with these policies.
When converting these policies into real action, States and other stakeholders should fundamentally root programming and practices in a human rights based approach. Dunja Krause, a research officer for UNRISD’s Sustainable Development Programme, pointed out that, “the human rights based approach is a paradigmatic shift from the notion that WASH is some sort of charity for underserving poor. The right to water security is an entitlement – every person on this planet deserves to have WASH”.
In that vein, women should play a central role in WASH programming and planning. Deputy Minister Kekana mused, “I struggle to respond to a question that keeps coming to me – why women must demand to participate in the full sector of WASH management”. She continued that a key to changing this norm rests on men advocating for the involvement of women in reshaping WASH. Taking a human rights approach also means we should endeavor to leave no one behind, including the groups listed by Ms. Brattested.
Panelists reminded us that there are tangible examples of successfully putting these concepts into practice to make better WASH for women and girls a reality.
Professor V. Srinivas Chary from the Administrative Staff College of India shared his experiences from working on the SHE Toilets Project, which has introduced women-only toilets to Warangal, India. His team found that women in Warangal used public WASH facilities in disproportionately lower rates than men due to safety concerns, unclean conditions, inadequately designed facilities and the presence of male caretakers. Based on these findings, the city has built SHE Toilets, which boast features such as women caretakers, CCTV, ventilation, privacy and mechanisms for disposing of menstrual pads. As of 2018, the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) had secured funds to build 100 more SHE toilets, and hoped to build an additional 200 over the next five years.
Meanwhile, Martina Nee, Programme Manager at WaterAid Sweden showed the room just how much of a tangible impact that conscious programming can have on women’s and girls’ lives. She shared the words of Rikta, a 30-year-old woman who runs in Bashpoti, Dakha: “my business has flourished since the new toilet. Before, I had to close my market stall to go home to use a toilet. Now my business is open all the time – and it has impacted my business a lot. It also helps me to keep clean”.
Achieving Agenda 2030 in regards to WASH requires us to consider the human rights and wellbeing of all women and girls, particularly those belonging to marginalized groups. It hinges on our willingness to elevate these kinds of discussions, and to learn from initiatives like those discussed in the panel. The side event was co-hosted by global advocates and champions of issues relating to WASH, including the Governments of Cameroon, India, Norway, Singapore, and South Africa in partnership with WSSCC.
Photo credit: Joel Sheakoski
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