Gender and Sanitation

Gender: Represents the social relationships between men and women, where power disparities play an important role.

At the outstart of this article, let’s be clear that sustainable sanitation is a basic need that both genders should enjoy. After all, men and women are both humans and need facilities to perform daily ablutions. Plus, their quality of life, mental and physical well being and other important parameters like education and economic stability etc are related to sanitation.

But like it or not, it’s women who inadvertently end up bearing the brunt of poor sanitation. In fact, one of the most glaring disparities between men and women, especially in developing nations, is hygiene and sanitation. Women are supposed to be providers, promoters, propagators and educators of sanitation, hygiene and sanitary practices. This is ironic, considering:

  • Women’s sanitary concerns are seldom addressed.
  • Often, regressive norms prevent them from having a bigger say in decisions related to sanitation facilities.
  • Women’s opinions are grossly underrepresented in the process of decision making.

Defecating and urinating in the open is indignifying in the extreme to both men and women, but especially to women. This is because women are at risk of being sexually assaulted while they go to secluded spots to answer nature’s calls. Women often have to venture out alone at night to urinate or defecate, which makes them prone to sexual assault. This also creates another problem- women often drink less so they only have to go at night, which leads to diseases like urinary tract infections. In urban areas women face security risks when forced to share a toilet with men.

Women’s health, privacy and dignity are at stake with poor sanitation.

In many places, sanitation facilities in schools are poor, making using the washroom a problem for both boys and girls. But it’s more of a hindrance for girls, who drop out mostly at or around puberty, due to lack of demarcation of toilets for boys and girls. A study in rural Pakistan revealed that 50% of girls drop out in grade 2 or 3 because the school doesn’t have latrines. In rural Tajikistan, an assessment in 20 schools showed that girls did not want to attend school when they were menstruating. Lack of sanitary facilities are a big obstacle in the way of girls attending school and girls’ education.

Another problem is that toilets are often built on a wrong assumption of gender neutrality, resulting in problems for both genders. For example, toilets with doors facing the street are inconvenient for women, urinals too high for boys, no facilities for girls and women to dispose off sanitary pads, and pour-flush toilets that require more work for women.

How can sanitation be made more gender-sensitive, for both men and women? How can we ensure that women’s concerns are addressed, and their views taken into consideration by bodies that plan and male policy on sanitation?

  • Sustainable toilets: Ecosan toilets, requiring less water than flush toilets, are preferred in South India. In rural Zimbabwe, women prefer the eco-friendly arbor loo- which men also appreciate since they’re easy to build. In Garla Mare, a village in Romania without water supply, women have favored urine diverting dry toilets. They are easy to use, cheap, hygienic, and also provide fertilizer of good quality, used to grow corn and paprika.
  • Urgent need to bring a gender perspective into sanitation policy-making, involving both men and women, through a process-oriented way that takes needs of the poor into consideration.
  • A gender analysis would help understand the socio-economic and cultural concerns in an area where a project is being implemented. It helps build an understanding of the needs, demands, knowledge, attitudes and practices of men and women in the area.
  • Assessing the impact, positive or negative, of policies on both men and women of different age and social groups.
  • Classifying men and women according to age, class, caste, ethnicities, socio-economic strata, as refugees and women-headed households.

Men also need to be involved while making sanitation and sanitary policies more gender-sensitive. Their views on gender issues are important too.

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