New Study by WHO and UNICEF Reports Women and Girls Most at Risk From the Water and Sanitation Crisis

Photo credit: Vic Hinterlang 

This month the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF released a new report titled Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) 2000 – 2022: Special focus on gender which provides the first in depth analysis of gender inequalities in WASH services. The report notes that some progress has been made – household access to safely managed sanitation increased from 49 to 57% between 2015 and 2022 –  but achieving the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goal target for universal access by 2030 will require a fivefold increase at that rate. 

The report estimates that 2 out of 5 people in the world still lack access to safely managed sanitation, and also shows that more than half a billion people share sanitation facilities with other households which compromises women’s and girls’ privacy, dignity, and safety. Surveys from 22 countries demonstrated that among households with shared toilets, women and girls were more likely than men and boys to feel unsafe walking alone at night and face sexual harassment and other safety risks when they have to leave their home to take care of their sanitation needs. During this time of increased instability and gang activity in Haiti, these risks are heightened for the women and girls who live there and have to leave the home to seek sanitation access.

Furthermore, the report determines that inadequate WASH services pose health hazards and specifically affect the health of women and girls. The lack of proper facilities restricts their ability to safely and privately manage their menstrual cycles which can translate into gender disparities in education; schools that do not have an environment that is supportive of menstrual health hygiene can lead to irregular attendance and the low participation of girls and young women.  

Among 51 countries with available data, women and adolescent girls from the most impoverished households face the most significant challenges when accessing a private space for washing and changing. These findings shed light on a disparity within communities, highlighting the urgent need for targeted interventions and support.

“Unsafe water, toilets, and handwashing at home robs girls of their potential, compromises their well-being, and perpetuates cycles of poverty,” says Cecilia Sharp, UNICEF Director of WASH. “Responding to girls’ needs in the design and implementation of WASH programmes is critical to reaching universal access to water and sanitation and achieving gender equality and empowerment.”

A UN report titled Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda: Gender-responsive Water and Sanitation Systems also points out that WASH interventions must address gender-specific needs and barriers, focusing on ending discrimination, eliminating violence, recognising unpaid care and domestic work, strengthening women’s participation in WASH management, and ensuring equal access to resources. By addressing these issues, WASH interventions can create synergies and improve the lives of women and girls.

SOIL is working to combat gender-based inequality and violence in urban Haiti by offering families household toilets, which provide women and girls with a sense of dignity as well as increased safety and security. At SOIL, women’s voices are at the forefront of our work. As a women-led social enterprise, we’re committed to gender equity in livelihood creation and feel that women are uniquely qualified and effective in this work bringing a specialized and specific perspective due to their central role in managing nearly all of the responsibilities of their own households, including sanitation, water and hygiene.

Efforts to promote gender equality in WASH require additional attention. It is crucial to incorporate gender considerations into WASH programs and policies, as well as to collect and analyze data to allow for a deeper understanding of the unique challenges faced by women, girls, and other vulnerable groups. By doing so, targeted interventions can be developed to address the specific needs of women and girls and ensure that progress in the WASH sector is inclusive and equitable.

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