Urgent Need to Address Gender Inequalities in WASH

By Fidelis Rukwaro

With billions of people lacking access to safely managed drinking water,  safe sanitation and proper hygiene of washing hands with soap and water at home, girls and women still bear the brunt of this global water and sanitation crisis.

This is according to a new report released by the World Health Organization(WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) titled ‘Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) 2000-2022: Special focus on gender.’

“Every step a girl takes to collect water is a step away from learning, play, and safety,” said Cecilia Sharp, UNICEF Director of WASH and CEED, emphasizing the impact of inadequate water, toilets, and handwashing facilities on girls’ lives.

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

Nearly two billion people worldwide live in households without water supplies on the premises. In most of these households, seven out of 10, women and girls aged 15 and older are mainly responsible for fetching water, compared to men and boys.

Additionally, the report highlights the unequal burden faced by girls under 15, who are twice likely than boys under 15 to fetch water. Women and girls endure longer journeys to collect water, resulting in lost time for education, work, leisure, and increased risks of physical injury and dangers along the way.

The report further reveals that over half a billion people still share sanitation facilities with other households, compromising women’s and girls’ privacy, dignity, and safety. It highlights that women and girls using shared toilets are more likely to feel unsafe walking alone at night and experience sexual harassment and other safety risks.

Furthermore, inadequate WASH services pose health risks for women and girls and limit their ability to safely and privately manage their periods. In countries with available data, women and adolescent girls in the poorest households and those with disabilities are the most likely to lack a private place for washing and changing.

“The latest data from WHO shows a stark reality: 1.4 million lives are lost each year due to inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene,” warns Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director, Environment, Climate Change, and Health Department.

“Women and girls not only face WASH-related infectious diseases, like diarrhea and acute respiratory infections, but they also face additional health risks because they are vulnerable to harassment, violence, and injury when they have to go outside the home to haul water or just to use the toilet.”

In conclusion, the report emphasizes the need for continued efforts to ensure that progress in water, sanitation, and hygiene aligns with gender equality goals. It calls for integrating gender considerations into WASH programs and policies and collecting and analyzing data.

These steps will inform targeted interventions that address the specific needs of women, girls, and other vulnerable groups, ultimately working towards achieving universal access to water and sanitation while promoting gender equality and empowerment.

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