The Challenges and Interconnectedness of Sanitation and Gender Equality


By Lyra Cooper

In 2012, sanitation was on the General Assembly’s agenda for the very first time – a reality that is surprising, but not more so than the statistics on sanitation that have come to the forefront of these discussions in recent years.

Today, 2.5 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities, which is a major cause of high child mortality, the spread of disease, deficient public health, and many other issues, all of which disproportionately impact women and girls.[1] Poor or absent sanitation facilities in schools, for example, can interfere with girls’ learning, especially when they are menstruating. Lacking private facilities and options for changing or disposing of feminine hygiene products, many girls miss a week of school per month, quickly falling behind their male peers. Insufficient sanitation in the public sector can impact adult women’s ability to work outside the home. It can be extremely difficult for women and girls to focus on education, economic activities, leadership opportunities, and other pursuits when addressing their bodies’ most basic needs. This is a pervasive challenge, and one that is usually considered unacceptable for public discussion; however, it is critical to women’s and girls’ ability to achieve and maintain their human rights. As the Ambassador of Singapore claimed, “Safe sanitation is the gateway for dignity, health, and gender equality.”[2]

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), address both sanitation and gender equality in Goals 5 and 6: to promote gender equality, empower women, and ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, respectively. The fact that these two goals are placed side by side in the 2030 Agenda is indicative of the interconnectedness and interdependence of the problems and solutions surrounding gender inequalities and a lack of access to water and sanitation.

VGIF grantees are making these connections as well. For example, Women in Water and Natural Resources Conservation (WWNRC) implemented a one-year project with VGIF funding in 2014 that focused on improving water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services in Kakamega, Kenya. This project not only provided WASH trainings for 1,200 women, it also constructed 4 rain water harvesting tanks and 2 ventilated latrines at a primary school for girls, and trained women to main these structures for continued use. The results: increased availability of clean water, expansion of services at a local health center, and 50 newly trained female community health workers. Having established these critical resources, WWNRC is now building on their work through a VGIF-funded 3 year project focused on ensuring women’s social, political and economic participation in the community.

WWNRC provides an example of sustainable change beginning at the community level and growing upward and outward – a model that must be supported if real progress towards increased sanitation and gender equality is to be achieved, and if the SDGs are to be met.

[1] Ambassador Harald Braun, Permanent Representative of Germany to the UN, oral statement at “Emerging Issues in Gender and Wash: Launch Event” UN Headquarters, New York, March 14, 2016.
[2] Ambassador Karen Tan, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Singapore to the UN (Chair), oral statement at “Emerging Issues in Gender and Wash: Launch Event” UN Headquarters, New York, March 14, 2016.