More pressing, more progress towards gender equality

6 min read
Image: WaterAid/Ernest Randriarimalala

Gender equality is at the core of WaterAid’s work and high on the news agenda. But are we all doing enough to push forward to ensure women’s voices are heard and their rights met? WaterAid UK’s Priya Nath, Equality, Inclusion and Rights Advisor, and Louisa Gosling, Quality Programmes Manager, discuss.

International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to celebrate the progress we have made as an organisation, as a society and as nations on moving towards gender equality. But it is also a time to reflect and recommit to the progress the world still desperately needs for everyone, everywhere to enjoy true gender equality and equal rights.

The past few years have held many harsh reminders that the journey towards gender equality is not a linear process, and that it does not always go forwards. Sometimes, for every step forward are two steps backwards; in one direction the kidnapping of girls just trying to go to school in Nigeria, and in the other women in Saudi Arabia gaining the small but important freedom to drive.

Environmental catastrophes such as the earthquakes in Nepal and the drought in Mozambique, as well as war and mass migration, have resulted in backwards steps for gender equality. Gains in women’s rights are often threatened in times of shock, insecurity and war; one example is increased child marriage in crises. And statistics around violence against women and girls – be it in Uganda, Nepal, Cambodia, the UK, the USA, Australia, Papua New Guinea or Ethiopia – are a shameful and persistent reminder of the violence and intimidation that many women live with. Progress can be fragile, and will never be guaranteed unless we keep pushing.

Confronting misconduct

In the past month the international development sector has found itself, in the UK, at the centre of sexual assault and safeguarding controversy. Historic and current cases of sexual misconduct by male development workers, consultants and volunteers have surfaced. While the overwhelming majority of development workers, partners and volunteers actively stand against this sort of behaviour and have dedicated their lives to creating a more just, equal world, just like any other sector, we must all ensure a culture of zero tolerance towards any kind of sexual abuse or harassment.

Cases of sexual abuse and misconduct are a symptom of the wider gender inequalities that still exist in our societies, our work and our lives. These issues are connected, so our response to them must be joined up too.

Reviewing our organisational policies and procedures to ensure that we protect the people we work with and our staff from any form of abuse of power, sexual harassment or misconduct is the right response, and the sector is putting a lot of focus on how to do this in the best possible way. But that in itself is not enough to change deep-seated and entrenched sexist, racist or exploitative beliefs across society. These attitudes we must continue to challenge where we find them.

Everyone in the sector must reflect on what has happened, learn from these experiences and make even greater commitments, personally and organisationally, to ensure we have a culture of zero tolerance to abuse and harassment. Now is the time for some critical self-reflection and thinking about what we do next, both inside our organisation and through our programme work.

Reducing and redistributing the WASH work burden

In our WASH programmes we promote gender equality and access for women and girls. We focus on getting more women on WASH committees and into decision-making roles. We remove the stigma and barriers associated with menstruation, improve maternal and newborn health and hygiene, make toilets more female-friendly and get water closer to homes so that women and children don’t have to travel as far. These are fantastic and crucial steps forward.

But achieving full gender equality in WASH demands more.

We have to change how projects and programmes are planned, funded and delivered, to overcome unconscious male bias and ensure rights are met for people of all genders. Rather than just aiming to lighten the burden of women’s WASH work, we must do more with partners, people and governments to reduce and redistribute that burden. As Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5.4 sets out, we should ensure that, by 2030, societies ‘Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate’.

And we can help to break barriers and stereotypes, by encouraging increased diversity among WASH practitioners, supporting women, men, people with disabilities, people from minority backgrounds and others who currently may be unlikely to work in the sector to join it. This would help us to be more responsive to more people's needs.

Challenging social norms

Addressing gender equality issues in a sector that has a predominantly technical approach can be difficult; WASH specialists are generally trained to understand and address the technical or political challenges of poor WASH. We are often uncomfortable with the idea that WASH organisations should seek to challenge social norms and power dynamics, especially when these might also apply to our own lives. But every WASH-related intervention has a gendered impact – that is, different impacts on women and on men. We need to try to understand what those impacts are, and make sure they are beneficial and empowering for all.

Pump mechanic Dalia Soda and school student Annie at one of the WaterAid pumps Dalia maintains in Salima District, Malawi.
Pump mechanic Dalia Soda and school student Annie at one of the WaterAid pumps Dalia maintains in Salima District, Malawi.
Image: WaterAid/Alexia Webster

Understanding such dynamics might require different approaches, different tools and different ways of thinking from what we are used to. We should be aware of what we do not know about these dynamics and collaborate more with those who do, including women’s organisations. Change happens fastest when we can draw on the experience of new partners in the discussion, to help us challenge stereotypes and norms.

Changing norms takes time, but it is possible. WaterAid’s progress on increasing visibility, recognition and prioritisation of stigma and conditions around menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is a great example of how organisations like ours can contribute to gender equality. The WASH sector's approaches to MHM have been deep, participatory and innovative.

There have also been great efforts in Timor-Leste, for example, where WaterAid has sensitively and practically facilitated household and community conversations about the current gender imbalances in aspects of community WASH, producing a manual to help others do the same. We also commissioned the sector-leading Practitioner’s Toolkit on Violence, Gender and WASH, to increase understanding of how WASH may contribute to gender-based violence, again providing practical ways to ensure that we avoid any possibility of this through our work.

Fighting for true gender equality and equity for all, in all contexts, must be an ongoing professional and personal challenge. We cannot be complacent thinking we have factored it in to enough of our work – we must embed it deep in everything we do. As the SDGs rightly make clear – sustainable development cannot be achieved until we achieve gender equality. This is not an optional extra, but an essential part of our work.