Women, water, toilets, and the Water for Life Decade

Wednesday, 1 July 2015 16:01 GMT

A woman fetches drinking water from a well along a dry Chemumvuri river near Gokwe, Zimbabwe, May 20, 2015. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

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Worldwide, women and girls bear the greatest burden associated with inadequate or non-existent toilets and lack of water

A watershed year for many reasons, 2015 marks a new era of development and the end of a Decade for Action focused on Water for Life. Reflecting back over the Decade at the invitation of the Tajikistan Government last month, it is clear that a lot of progress has been made around the imperative for WaSH access.

While difficult to attribute success to the Decade when it overlapped in its entirety with the Millennium Development Goals, the Decade must be credited with catalysing action, contribution to ongoing dialogues, and with expanding understanding and comprehension of what is at stake.

Between 2005 and 2015, we have made great progress in linking water, sanitation and hygiene, in breaking the taboo on sanitation, in recognising water and sanitation as a human right, and in building evidence for informed policies, investments, and interventions.

However, I believe that the most important contribution of the Decade has centred around women. [While not comparable in consequence, I challenge you to think of the last time as a woman you did not have to queue for a public toilet even in the so-called developed world.] Yet women are virtually invisible and voiceless when it comes to the management of, or decision-making around, these issues; their silence exacerbated by patriarchal societies, poverty, stigma, disabilities, and status.

This Decade has made great strides in not only acknowledging the burden placed upon women and girls, but their central role in sustainable solutions. Don’t get me wrong - we still have a long way to go to eliminate geographic and gender disparities in access, management, and decision-making.

More importantly, in a world that measures success according to business metrics, it has become convenient to brush failure under the proverbial mat. As a management expert once explained to me, failure should be celebrated by raising our arms in the air and shouting out “how fantastic!” - embracing a new opportunity to learn, problem-solve, and improve. This is even more important when we consider that similar challenges are faced across projects, even if they differ in scope, scale, cost, and location.

One such failure that we should all embrace is the preferential funding of hardware infrastructure. While technology is essential, it is insufficient for sustained and sustainable solutions.

What good is a pump if we have not accounted for operation, management, and lifecycle costs? What good is a public toilet without a committee or organisation to run it and keep it clean? What good is the newest technological solution if capacity doesn’t exist to manage finances and operation, or insufficient funding is available to engage stakeholders? Software represents essential supporting infrastructure that is never funded sufficiently, or accounted for in its entirety, as part of project proposals.

Another critical investment is in bridging research, policy, and practice for better scale-up and out of proven solutions, and innovations to overcome existing roadblocks. While many try to bridge the former, practice is often left out, even though engagement of local people and project design based on local evidence and knowledge and not on external perceptions of needs or context are essential to finding sustainable solutions and increasing the probability of sustainable change. How else do we end up with state of the art schools or healthcare facilities without thought having been paid to taps and toilets, or the specific hygiene needs of girls, newly-birthed mothers, or female staff?

But through talking with women’s organisations, women in those organisations, and women on the ground, we can embrace valuable lessons in order to realise sustainable, universal access post-2015.

First, social capital, the capital generated through the relationships between people and their associated behaviours and values, is an important ingredient for sustainable change. Some have described social capital as the engine that drives change. While individual capacity and knowledge are important, they do not translate automatically into community engagement and action.

In our work in rural East Africa, we have found that a lack of social capital is a barrier to collective action for WaSH, especially for women. Second, women are important and effective agents of change, not just at the community level. Women have a strong tradition of building social networks and the characteristics of their social capital – the places that they occupy, the ways in which they build trust and solidarity - make them well-suited to tackling social issues, even though their lack of social capital inhibits this development.

Third, any opportunity for women to reap personal and professional benefits are mechanisms for increasing capacity of the collective, as women share newfound knowledge and skills with their peers and collaborate to solve problems. Finally, in many cases, women have been demonstrated to be important catalysts in starting community WaSH initiatives through their roles as individuals who bring communities together effectively and efficiently, building trust and acceptance. However, structural barriers exist that make it difficult for women to engage, such as multiple demands on their time, lack of decision-making authority, lack of access to financial resources, and cultural prohibitions against speaking out.

I would summarise the Decade for Action: Water for Life (2005-2015) as a decade in which we gained a lot, learned a lot, and started to equip ourselves with the foundations for sustainable, universal access to WaSH – foundations that must include women from start to finish, at all levels, and across all sectors and roles.  

This is based on a presentation made during the Tajikistan High Level Meeting, June 2015 and the publication “Women, WaSH, and the Water for Life Decade” (http://inweh.unu.edu/women-wash-water-life-decade/). 

Corinne Schuster-Wallace, United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

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