Expert’s Take: Gender perspectives on sanitation for sustainable development

An op-ed by Begoña Lasagabaster, Acting Head of UN Women’s Policy Division, to mark World Toilet Day (19 November).

Date: Wednesday, November 19, 2014

About the author
Begoña LasagabasterBegoña Lasagabaster is currently the Acting Head of UN Women’s Policy Division, prior to which she was the Chief of the Leadership and Governance Section. She has over 20 years of professional experience, including since 2008 with UNIFEM and UN Women. She was a Member of the Spanish Parliament for 12 years (1996-2008), and played an active role in establishing more than 150 laws in areas of women’s rights, gender equality law, elimination of violence against women, international development and cooperation, economic, social and justice rights.

Every year, on 19 November, the international community celebrates World Toilet Day to create awareness about the lack of access to basic sanitation currently affecting 2.5 billion people. This year’s theme is “Equality and Dignity.”  Different stakeholders will convene at UN Headquarters in New York to explore, among other issues, the linkages between gender-based violence and sanitation, highlighting the incidence of increased vulnerability to all forms of violence for women and girls when safe, private and easily accessible sanitation is in short supply.

UN Women leads the global effort to end all forms of violence against women. This November, the organization places emphasis on ending violence against women by featuring facts, stories, audiovisual and social media content and calling for action against this grave human rights violation, as part of a year-long campaign leading up to the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity—Picture It!”

As we accelerate efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and elaborate a solid post-2015 development agenda, we have an historic opportunity to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment. Addressing the needs of women and girls with regard to proper sanitation needs to be a vital component. Why? Because women and girls are disproportionately affected by inadequate access to sanitation, due to a number of physiological, social and cultural factors. These challenges cannot be overcome without addressing the correlation between sanitation and women’s vulnerability to gender-based violence.

Overall, inadequate access to sanitation unequally affects women and girls in many of the following ways: unhygienic public toilets and latrines threaten the health of women and girls who are prone to reproductive tract infections caused by poor sanitation; during menstruation, pregnancy and postnatal stages, the need for adequate sanitation becomes even more critical; and, when sanitation facilities are available, it tends to be women who bear cleaning responsibilities and disposal of human waste (such as “manual scavengers”), making them susceptible to disease.

When women and girls do not have access to private sanitation facilities, they resort to open areas, find a remote (often unprotected and hidden) place or travel a distance to where facilities exist. 

Not only does this cause women and girls to suffer indignity, severe health risks,  fear, shame and ostracism, but it increases their risk of multiple abuses including harassment, bullying, physical and sexual assault, inappropriate touching and other non-consensual sexual acts, including rape. This causes individual harm, curtailing their freedom of mobility, limiting their productive activities, and denying them full participation in community matters and decision-making that have a bearing on their lives, while the lack of adequate sanitary facilities in schools inhibits access to education.

These overlapping challenges must be recognized by development planners, the water and sanitation community, and the violence-against-women community. And, in order to realize universal access to water and sanitation, necessary and sufficient action is vital.

Advocacy at all levels is required to bring attention to this issue for local leaders who decide where and how facilities will be constructed; to those managing and technically implementing programmes; to community members who are implicated (teachers, health professionals, market associations, etc.); to women and girls to help identify safety issues, risks and solutions. [...]

To read more, visit Devex Impact: Business transforming development, where this op-ed was originally published..