• APGPD Secretariat

Water For Women

Prime Minister Turnbull has recently committed $100 million over five years to a new initiative, Water for Women, to be delivered through Australia’s aid program. Water for Women is an opportunity for Australia to demonstrate how access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) can contribute to gender equality and facilitate women’s empowerment.


MPs discuss WASH

In the context of the Prime Minister’s announcement, and of World Toilet Day on 19 November, the WASH Reference Group briefed the APGPD:

  • On the connections between sanitation and hygiene and women’s empowerment;

  • To share examples of current WASH programming having a positive impact on gender equality; and

  • To highlight the principles that should be informing the development of the Water for Women Initiative, rooted in the experiences of WASH Reference Group members

Luke Lovell, Policy Officer for WaterAid Australia, introduced the WASH Reference Group, which comprises Australian organisations working to improve Australia’s response to global water, sanitation and hygiene challenges. Its members are drawn from over 30 Australian NGOs, research organisations and Australian water industry bodies and have experience in delivering water, sanitation and hygiene, and water resource management programs; policy design and implementation; monitoring and evaluation; capacity and skills development; and integration of WASH with intersecting issues such as gender, disability and health, across the Asia-Pacific region. The Australian Government regularly seeks contributions from the WASH Reference Group as a reliable, engaged and respected representative body for the water, sanitation and hygiene sector.

As Luke said, ‘the importance of addressing global sanitation challenges becomes clear when you realise that currently 2.3 billion people worldwide lack access to improved sanitation. Nearly 1 billion people have no toilet at all, and defecate in the open. For these people, where and when they’re going to be able to go to the toilet, or if the toilet they use is going to make themselves and their family sick, is never far from the forefront of their mind.’

‘The result of poor sanitation is death and disease – especially among children – and social marginalisation. Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by a lack of access. A lack of toilets, exposes women to the risk of assault and harassment. When schools cannot provide clean, safe toilets girls’ attendance drops. Given what we know about the benefits of education for later life outcomes for girls, no girl should be missing school for something as simple as the absence of a toilet.’

Rosie Wheen, Chief Executive of WaterAid Australia, then elaborated on the impacts of poor sanitation and hygiene for women and girls.

Due to both biological and cultural factors, women are disproportionately impacted by a lack of sanitation and hygiene. This is a major issue given that globally there are at least 1.15 billion women and girls who lack access to improved sanitation – 500 million of which have to defecate in the open.

Lack of access to clean, safe toilets, especially during menstruation, perpetuates risk, shame and fear, and has significant long-term impacts on the health, education and productivity of women and girls. Women with poor sanitation at home are at a three-fold risk for maternal mortality. Poor sanitation contributes to undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies that increase women’s risk of dying during childbirth and, in the longer term, can have intergenerational impacts on the growth, development and prosperity of their children. Women and girls without toilets spend a combined 97 billion hours annually finding somewhere to go to the toilet, time which could be spent in school, work or leisure. Numerous studies have documented a link between a lack of gender-segregated toilets at schools and increased absenteeism among girls in developing countries.

Addressing these issues creates an environment in which women and girls are better able to achieve their full potential in work, school and home life.

Providing access to clean water and sanitation is enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals, where Goal 5 calls on the world to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’, while Goal 6 requires countries to ensure ‘available and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.’

Prime Minister Turnbull is one of 10 world leaders on the UN-World Bank High Level Panel on Water, established to catalyse global action on Goal 6. As part of his membership of the Panel, Prime Minister Turnbull has announced a new $100 million, 5-year Water for Women (WfW) initiative, to be delivered through Australia’s aid program.

Dr Ann-Marie Nobelius, Program Manager for Gender WASH at the International Women’s Development Agency, then gave further examples of how high-quality water and sanitation efforts can transform women and girls’ lives. The Western Pacific Sanitation Marketing Program establishes community-based sanitation enterprises that sell and build different types of toilets to local households. Women’s involvement in these enterprises is a central part of the program.

Melita Grant, Senior Research Consultant, at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, highlighted the principles that the Reference Group believe should be informing the development of the Water for Women Initiative, if it is to achieve its transformative potential and empower women and girls.

Water for Women presents an opportunity for Australia to continue to play a global leadership role on WASH. In order to be effective and reach its transformational potential, Water for Women needs to:

  • Recognise women as WASH custodians: Acknowledge the pivotal role of women as providers and users of water, sanitation and hygiene, by prioritising their inclusion and participation at all levels of WASH projects, including decision-making and implementation, in ways defined by them.

  • Recognise the various ways WASH intersect with women’s lives: Related to the above point, that the needs of women and girls to access WASH extend beyond the home must also be recognised. Water for Women should take a universal, gender-inclusive approach across all areas of women’s lives, taking into account WASH needs at work, in public places, at schools and health centres.

  • Prioritise strategic gender changes: Contributing to improving strategic gender changes is core to improving gender equality as challenges power dynamics and tackles underlying barriers to equality. For example, it is not enough just to build water points closer to households; a more equitable workload around collecting water between women and men must also be addressed.

  • Prioritise marginalised peoples: WASH issues affect gender-discriminated people differently. Water for Women must recognise that women are not a homogeneous group. There are multiple ‘layers’ of marginalisation that intersect and reinforce discrimination, with women and girls with disabilities particularly marginalised, as are transgender and intersex women. Water for Women must explicitly consider the most marginalised women and girls and address their needs.

  • Take a gender mainstreaming approach: Water for Women should involve gender experts, including women’s organisations, at all phases, allocating resources to continual engagement with these experts. Data should be disaggregated by sex and disability, so that better information is available for decision-making. To compliment quantitative data, a greater emphasis should be placed on qualitative monitoring.

  • Build on the strengths of the current Civil Society WASH Fund: As the replacement for DFAT’s current Civil Society WASH Fund, there are several inherent strengths which should be maintained in Water for Women. These include: measuring of strategic/transformative change as well as practical improvements in women’s participation and WASH access; retaining the independent Monitoring Evaluation and Review Panel (while extending it to include gender specialists); and retainment of the Knowledge and Learning function, extending and deepening the learning theme on gender and WASH as part of this.

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