Bring More Women into Water and Sanitation Operations

Access to clean water is vital to empowering women. Photo: ADB
Access to clean water is vital to empowering women. Photo: ADB

By Anupma Jain

Water and sanitation has a major impact on public health and women’s empowerment. Now is the time to accelerate the momentum and streamline health and gender into water supply and sanitation operations.

We know the impact that water and sanitation has on public health and women’s empowerment; however, the challenge remains—how to operationalize these aspects into water supply and sanitation projects?

Let’s first clarify a few assumptions. First, water and sanitation specialists do not have an aversion to incorporating health and gender aspects in projects; in fact, most welcome the opportunity and felt that impacts could be highlighted more in projects. Second, we in the social sectors need to recognize that not all water supply and sanitation projects can have a measurable impact on gender or health. And third, the inclusion of ‘soft components’ in projects require resources and time to implement; in fact, they could affect the desired pace of project implementation. Nevertheless, both health and gender actions can be incorporated in water supply and sanitation projects. For health, this means having a strong focus on sanitation and hygiene, water quality, appropriate technology and clear health indicators. For gender, this requires meaningful and culturally appropriate targets with sound baselines. The image of women and children carrying heavy containers of water from far distances is unforgettable. 

We need to look for creative solutions that can be showcased. 

Here are some helpful tips when working with water and sanitation specialists. 

  • Understand the basic concepts in water supply and sanitation. It’s about providing universal access to water supply and sanitation in a community in an equitable manner, especially since access is a human right. It’s about securing water for all as water becomes one of our most precious resources. ​ Communities free of open defecation rely on the power of collective behavioral change, which if complemented with durable sanitation facilities, has a multiplicative effect. A 'free' connection, where the cost of connecting to a piped water supply system is waived for all social groups, is more efficient and equitable than grants or deferred payment options to poor or female-headed households only. Promoting full-cost recovery of water tariffs also benefits the poor since they often spend a greater proportion of household income on drinking water from alternative sources. 
  • Keep health and gender indicators and targets simple for easy monitoring. While indicators should be robust and targets should be meaningful, they also should be clearly defined, data sources identified, and baselines collected. Water and sanitation specialists are often not health or gender specialists.  Information on the incidence of diarrhea, for instance, may vary depending on whether the information is collected during the wet or dry season. Gender targets need to be country-specific and based on baseline data. A quota for women in water and sanitation construction work, for instance, may be appropriate in India or Viet Nam but may not be applicable in Georgia or the Philippines.  
  • Differentiate between urban and rural settings. It’s time to gear up and cater gender actions, behavioral change activities, and hygiene promotion campaigns to specific needs of rural and urban settings. Rural hygiene activities, such as hand washing practices, may not be applicable in urban settings. Similarly, women in urban areas may have different priorities and views on engagement than rural women; the opportunity cost of participating in community groups might be greater. One option is identifying opportunities for women in water utilities, which requires a more holistic institutional review of women’s role in technical and non-technical areas—an approach that might be appealing to both public and private utilities.  
  • Think Outside the Box: Innovate, Execute, and Collaborate.  Be innovative and seize opportunities to promote social innovation—a phenomenon where new ideas work to meet pressing unmet need and improve peoples’ lives. Examples in water supply and sanitation include ‘free’ water connection policies linked to household sanitation, full-cost recovery water tariffs, and use of public-private partnerships. Be ready to collaborate with development partners and the private sector. Finding innovative ways of working with them can help complement infrastructure development and make aid more effective.  

Bottom line—water and sanitation specialists are willing partners and should not be misunderstood. If we want to promote linkages between water and sanitation to other development goals, we need to know the audience that we’re trying to influence and find new ways of communicating and exchanging ideas. We need to look for creative solutions that can be showcased in projects, but those that are specific to projects, countries, and its people’s culture.