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WASH and gender: The human rights perspective

  • Published at 10:49 am April 7th, 2021

Gender equality and access to water are basic human rights 

Safe access to water and sanitation is basic human rights and strongly related with dignity. The right to safe water is defined as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use. Sanitation in human rights terms is equally understood as a basic survival needs that is associated with dignity and proper hygiene behavior. Maintaining safely managed sanitation is the system that requires a well-managed value chain related to the collection, transportation, treatment and disposal or reuse of human excreta to ensure environmental sustainability. 

Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are deeply relevant to women’s and girls’ empowerment, affecting their education, health, income and safety. The 1992 Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development stated: “Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water’ and policies should ‘address women’s specific needs’ and ‘empower women to participate at all levels in water resources programs, including decision-making and implementation, in ways defined by them.” 

Global commitment on WASH: The SDG perspective 

The year 2020 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Beijing Declaration, and the ten-year anniversary of the General Assembly resolution 64/292, recognizing the human right to water and sanitation. As we approach these milestones, it seems apparent to take stock of the progress (or lack thereof) made on SDG 5 – gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment, and SDG 6 – access to water and sanitation for all. While gender equality and the right to water and sanitation are intrinsically linked, we are far from achieving either of these goals.

Goal 6 of SDG shows that world leaders understand the importance of making these essentials normal for the world's most marginalized people. We know that women and girls – especially those living in poverty – are disproportionately affected by a lack of water and sanitation services, making SDG 5 and 6 fundamentally interdependent. Despite progress after MDGs, 785 million people still don’t have clean water close to home and 2 billion don’t have a decent toilet of their own.  This crisis is a denial of people’s human rights to water and sanitation. 

Gender dimensions of WASH and climate change: Adverse effect on women and marginalized

Bangladesh is the seventh-most climate-affected country in the world, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2020. Floods and riverbank erosions affect some one million people annually in Bangladesh. Once every three to five years, up to two-thirds of the country is inundated by floods. Climate change-induced salinity poses an extreme risk/threat to freshwater resources. 

Climate change is not gender-neutral, the climatic hazards have gender-specific effects. Women are generally more vulnerable and are dependent for their livelihood on natural resources that are threatened by climate change. Due to social institutions, behavioural norms and the physiological attributes leave women more vulnerable to the effects of climate change then men. During flooding, many women fear social retribution for leaving their homes or taking shelter with other men, so seek refuge too late. For instance, during the cyclone in 1991 in Bangladesh, 90% of fatalities were among women and children. Death rates among people aged 20–44 were 71 per 1000 people for women, compared to 15 per 1000 people for men (WHO, 2011a). The aftermath of natural disasters also disproportionately affects women due to the nature of their livelihoods and role in production. The pregnant, breastfeeding and menstruating women are at a great risk of compromising their health after disasters and they also face a lot of problems with toilet facilities. 

"Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are deeply relevant to women’s and girls’ empowerment, affecting their education, health, income and safety"

Women are the managers of water and sanitation at household level – collecting safe water from a safe space are major activities of women. They are left with little to no time for work, school or to care for family and importantly time for their own leisure. Walking to collect water and carrying heavy vessels of water can be dangerous for a pregnant woman. Women and girls (and transgender people, people with disabilities, and children) are at greater risk than men of sexual violence, harassment and physical violence when forced to defecate in the open or use unsafe, dark or badly located toilets. 

Being unable to manage menstruation hygienically affects women’s and girls’ health, mobility and dignity. Women need a private and accessible toilet to change their menstrual products; water and soap to wash their hands, bodies and any reusable products; and somewhere to dispose of menstrual products in a safe, culturally appropriate and dignified way. But it is not available in Bangladesh for rural and slum dwellers.  There is high risk for girls to drop out from school or suffer psychological stress because of the lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities in their communities.

Addressing the WASH needs of women in the changing climate scenario at the national level

The Government of Bangladesh has formulated a number of policies and programs to address the climate-induced water vulnerabilities. The major relevant policies are - National Water Policy, Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, National Strategy for Water Sanitation and Hygiene, The National Sustainable Development Strategy, National Adaptation program of Action and the National Adaptation Plan process is moving. Importantly, the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 (BDP 2100) is also focusing on improving climate resilience through a holistic, cross-sector approach for delta management. As mentioned in the summary published for the Eighth 5 Year Plan (2021-2025) - “In compliance to Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100, funds will be mobilized to undertake more programs in climate change adaptation and mitigation.” While the government must provide a regulatory framework, the private sector will be forced to comply with the regulations. Bangladesh also initiated for two national climate change trust funds - one is the Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund (BCCTF), created in the fiscal year 2009-2010; and the other one is the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund (BCCRF), a multi donor trust fund, established in 2010. 

"Women are the managers of water and sanitation at household level – collecting safe water from a safe space are major activities of women"

The government approved the National Strategy for Water Supply and Sanitation in 2014, and the Fecal Sludge Management Institutional and Regulatory Framework (FSM - IRF) developed in 2017. To execute the FSM-IRF by 2030, a ‘National Action Plan’ has been developed, and subsequently CWIS/FSM Support Cell has been set up within DPHE to better execute and monitor those national policies in Department of Public Health and Engineering under the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development and Cooperatives. 

In terms of gender perspective of those policies, Bangladesh has the Women Advancement Policy (2011) included a section on women and children in disaster. Bangladesh Climate Change Strategies and Action Plan, also states that every effort shall be made to ensure that vulnerable groups will be protected. The Gender Action Plan (ccGAP) in its capacity building initiatives of GoB and other organizations gave more emphasis on gender issues in general and relevant organizations on gender and WASH and Climate Change in particular. The review of the ccGAP process has recently started and hopefully there would be a comprehensive outcome to build the strong linkages on women and WASH needs in the climatic conditions.

Way forward

Gender equality and access to water are basic human rights and are thus foundational for achieving the other SDGs. If we are to achieve these ambitious goals by 2030, leaving no one behind, we must promote more gender-transformative water and sanitation programs. In particular, we must address the hidden causes of gender inequality, transforming power dynamics. Below are way forward issues we should consider immediately:

Ensure women’s meaningful participation and leadership in WASH governance, climate governance, disaster management and integrated water resources management (IWRM) at all levels (household, community, national, and trans-boundary). 

Since, low levels of awareness and poor understanding of climate change risks, combined with significant knowledge gaps about climate change processes, have hindered effective societal decision making, there is a need to initiate massive campaign to challenge the social norms around unpaid care work, women’s leadership, and gender based violence, with special focus on WASH sector and sanitation value chain.

Creation of women change agents nationally (at both rural and urban) to actively support ORR-sensitive inclusive WASH services in schools and communities, and emphasize on community led total WASH programs remembering the preparedness for climate vulnerability. We must create equitable access and use of DRR and climate sensitive inclusive WASH facilities and services in schools and communities.

Increase national budget and social-safety net allocation for poor women and children needs as an adaptation strategy with climate change vulnerability, and ensure proper distribution of the safety-net schemes. 

Increase advanced research in identifying the impacts of climate change on gender roles and relations at the household level to determine where women’s and men’s priorities conflict and how policies and programmatic responses to climate change can best respond to the differing vulnerabilities, needs and priorities of women and men.

Rifat Binte Jia is a Gender Expert in the Disaster Climate Change Support Unit (CWIS-FSM Support Cell) under the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE). 

Shaila Shahid is the Chief Operating Officer of the Disaster Climate Change Support Unit under CWIS-FSM Support Cell, Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE).

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