Gender and Urban Sanitation Inequalities in Everyday Lives

By Susan Esme Chaplin
1 June 2017

Even though sanitation was established as a separate human right by the United Nations General Assembly in January 2016, there has an been overall failure to reduce by half the proportion of the global population without access to basic sanitation (Millennium Development Goal 7, Target C). The Sustainable Development Goals have targets of gender equality, and the sustainable and universal provision of sanitation. Hopefully this will mean increased attention being given to the interests and well-being of poor women and girls living in slums and informal settlements who still lack access to adequate sanitation. The sanitation needs of women and girls are different from those of men and boys because of the former’s requirements of personal safety, dignity and menstrual hygiene; there is also the issue of the disproportionate burden of unpaid labour in managing household sanitary needs. These inequalities in urban sanitation access have a great impact on the health, well-being and socio-economic status of women and girls. These inequalities continue to exist despite efforts to make the needs of poor urban women and girls an integral part of sanitation policies
and project planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

Despite the emphasis of low-income countries on gender inequalities and sanitation in their development goals, programmes and projects, there is still only a limited number of qualitative and quantitative evidence-based research articles available focusing on gender and sanitation continue to be available. This number further decreases when it comes to gender and urban sanitation in the Global South. The grey literature is more numerous, particularly that commissioned by international development agencies and non-government organisations. Missing from much of this evidence-based and grey literature are studies on the broader social, economic and environmental impacts on poor women and girls of daily life without access to adequate and safe sanitation. This means that there is very little evidence-based literature which examines how these inequalities in sanitation access affect the lives of poor women and girls who have to queue each morning to use public toilets, or decide which open defecation (OD) sites are the least dangerous to use. Also missing are studies on the socio-economic, health and well-being impacts on and coping strategies of women working in the informal sector, poor women and girls with a disability, elderly women, adolescent girls and homeless women or those living on the pavements, who all lack access to adequate and safe sanitation facilities. These sanitation inequalities are exemplified by the time poor women and girls have to spend each morning queueing to use the toilet or getting up earlier to go with other women to OD sites. The necessity for such actions furthers gender inequalities because it puts at risk the time women have available for paid employment and other household responsibilities.

Truelove (2011, p. 148) has argued that this ‘curtailment of opportunities (from income to education) due to water and sanitation activities reinforces a further level of physical insecurity and emotional violence, as some women become locked in a feedback cycle that brings them into distinct spaces and networks in order to access water and sanitation’. Women and girls living in slums often report instances of gender-based violence, shame and loss of dignity when walking along badly lit narrow paths to poorly designed and maintained community toilets or places of OD (Bapat & Agarwal 2003, Lennon 2011, McFarlane 2015, SHARE 2015 and Amnesty International 2010a). Phadke, Khan & Ranade (2011, p. 85), in a study of women and risk in Mumbai, have suggested that ‘[what] the lack of public toilets says is that women are less equal citizens than men and don’t deserve the same consideration’ in the design of urban spaces and the provision of urban infrastructures such as sanitation facilities.

These gender inequalities continue to exist despite the use of the concept of ‘gender mainstreaming’ in water and sanitation projects since the mid-1990s, which was designed to make the needs of women and girls an integral part of sanitation policies and project planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Instead, gender has become a term that is widely used in project documents and organisational policy documents ‘but is little theorised and ill-defined in most projects and supporting policy documents’ (O‘Reilly 2010, p. 49). Gender, according to the Water and Sanitation Program (2010, p. 9): is a concept that refers to socially constructed roles, behaviour, activities and attributes that a particular society considers appropriate and ascribes to men and women. These distinct roles and the relations between them may give rise to gender inequalities where one group is systematically favoured and holds advantages over another. Inequality in the position of men and women can and has worked against societies