Towards gender equality through sanitation access

Authors/editor(s): Zachary Burt, Kara Nelson and Isha Ray, UN Women

This discussion paper reviews the extensive literature on sanitation to show that inadequate access to this basic service prevents the realization of a range of human rights and of gender equality. We recognize that “dignity” is a highly culture- and gender-specific term; we therefore argue that sanitation for all—sanitation that serves all genders equally—must be designed and planned explicitly for the unique needs of women and girls.

We cover sanitation design, planning and financing for hygienic defecation, and for relieving oneself during the day at work or school. These needs are sometimes euphemistically referred to as nature’s “long call” (defecation) and “short call” (urination); the absence of safe facilities for these needs disproportionately affects women and girls. In addition, women and adolescent girls menstruate, and they need safe sanitation services to manage, hygienically and with dignity, this “monthly call”. We review the findings of the small but rapidly growing literature on menstrual hygiene management, with emphasis on menstruation management and a girl’s right to education. Finally, we review the work and life conditions of those working the “back-end” of the sanitation system, such as manual scavengers and sanitation workers. The paper concludes that safe sanitation is a gateway service for dignity, health and gender equality. In particular, sanitation in public or shared spaces must become a priority-planning sector for sustainable development.

This paper was featured at an event on Emerging Issues in Gender and WASH held during the 60th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women in 2016.

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Bibliographic information

Subject area(s): Human rights; 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); Waste management

Resource type: Discussion papers

Series: UN Women discussion paper series

UN Women office involved in publication: UN Women Headquarters

Publication year: 2016

Number of pages: 28

ISBN/ISSN: 978-1-63214-043-2

Publishing entities: United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women)