Our journey so far towards being a gender transformative organisation 

5 min read
WaterAid/ Joey Lawrence

As part of our commitment and journey towards being a gender-transformative organisation, in 2021–22 we undertook a global thematic review to explore and learn from our gender equality work. Chelsea Huggett and Martina Nee share the findings, which present an opportunity to understand our progress so far, drive learning, and, ultimately, deepen our commitment towards more ambitious gender equality outcomes through water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) systems strengthening.  

Our new Global Strategy captures our deepening commitment to gender equality as a foundational global approach across all our work. Within this, our Equality, inclusion and rights framework sets out the step change we are taking as part of an ambitious journey towards transformation, in which we are moving from inclusive to empowering outcomes, with a long-term vision for transformative outcomes, while avoiding harmful outcomes.   

To inform these global shifts and gather evidence to underpin our gender equality approach in our new 2022–32 Global Strategy, we undertook a global Gender equality thematic review (2021–22), supported by Sida (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency). Using the four levels (harmful, inclusive, empowering, transformative; see below figure) of the Equality, inclusion and rights framework, we aimed to identify programmatic, organisational and operational recommendations to progress gender equality, and to track and help realise our ambition towards transformative outcomes.  

An infographic showing integration of gender and inclusion into system strengthening. Text as follows. Harmful: Our accountability - We avoid causing harm by continually analysing, learning and redirecting all our efforts. Inclusive: Our minimum standard - We always deliver and advocate inclusive WASH that is participatory and accessible. Empowering: Our approach - We strive to deepen outcomes; tackle unequal relations in WASH; foster meaningful partnerships and drive internal transformative change.
Integrating gender and inclusion into system strengthening work. First used in washmatters.wateraid.org/publications/practical-guidance-gender-equality-strengthening-water-sanitation-hygiene-systems.

The review addressed the objectives both at global level and through a deep dive into five WaterAid country programmes: in Cambodia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Uganda and Zambia.  

Gender equality is essential to our mission, and we have had some success 

The review found that gender equality must be a non-negotiable part of us achieving our ambition of universal access to WASH. 

Successes to keep building on

Teams made steady and meaningful progress through their journey to gender transformative WASH when two features were present: self-reflective environments that adopt a ‘work in progress’ attitude, and leadership who take committed action as gender champions. Firm commitments and public statements, to which leaders are held accountable, were enabled by organisational cultures that promote self-reflection. Commitments driven through gender audit reports, self-assessments, business plans and gender policy positioning papers were effective.  

In many cases, access to services was ensured and barriers to participation addressed for women and girls across the organisation. The barriers women and girls face were routinely reviewed and analysed, and, in some programmes, removed by challenging harmful norms, creating an enabling environment and supporting women. There was also evidence of an intersectional approach to addressing the multiple ways men, women, boys and girls experience unequal access to WASH.  

In some pockets of the organisation, barriers to participation for gender and sexual minority groups were addressed, driven by contextual factors or individual motivations. 

There is strong organisational commitment to analysing gender and power, which was the primary driver in raising awareness and promoting improved gender practice. 

Internal Gender Equality Working Groups, both in country programmes and Federation member countries, made positive shifts in the organisational culture through engaging everyone as gender champions. This creates space for staff to discuss gender from the perspective of accessing different resources, decision making and privilege, and to critically reflect and mobilise. 

Areas to keep strengthening

The review found that gender expertise is limited internally and could be bolstered throughout the federation. The Global Gender Equality Working Group, gender champions and global advisors are the primary force for advancing gender equality and tackling challenging topics such as gender norms and the inclusion of gender and sexual minority groups. 

There is also an opportunity to strengthen the accountability of internal leadership on gender equality. Barriers to strong leadership commitment stem from limited confidence in or clarity on advancing initiatives. While some senior leaders champion gender equality initiatives, few examples emerged of good accountability mechanisms that could help progress towards gender equality outcomes. While gender champions appeared across leadership roles, respondents noted that one limitation is that it is primarily women who advance gender initiatives.

Staff from WaterAid Mali and partner NGO CARP holding a meeting with the Djekabara women's group in the village of Sakoba, Bossofala commune, Mali.
Staff from WaterAid Mali and partner NGO CARP holding a meeting with the Djekabara women's group in the village of Sakoba, Koulikoro, Mali.
WaterAid/ Basile Ouedraogo

Reflections on the methodology and learning 

Applying the Equity, inclusion and rights framework levels to analyse our gender work was a pilot approach, which raised opportunities and challenges: 

  • It helped us to develop and test gender equality benchmarks or standards. These can be used going forward and to help inform the Global Strategy implementation frameworks. 
  • It articulated specific dimensions of gender equality outcomes that were relevant for us to assess. This meant we could explore a breadth of gender approaches, some of which are newer practices to WaterAid, and enabled us to rigorously apply our Equity, inclusion and rights framework.  

The use of national consultants in each country led to a rich and participatory process. This confirms for us that a combination of ‘global’ and ’national’ consultants is an effective model.  

One limitation of the methodology is that applying criteria in this way led to assessing a limited number of relevant gender equality approaches and outcomes. There was not always space for deeper exploration of the effectiveness of programming to help us understand how and why changes to gender outcomes happen. 

While WaterAid was assessed against the criteria as a global organisation and for each country programme, federation members – Australia, Canada, India, Japan, Sweden, UK and USA – were not assessed individually. Doing so may have highlighted different members being at different stages on the journey to transformation. 

Using the evidence to continue our journey towards being a gender transformative organisation

We have learned a lot, and the criteria are a live learning process, which we can adapt and apply. We recognise that we may not always achieve gender transformative outcomes, especially without all actors working together to do so. However, we are committed to work towards gender transformation, and recognise this will require a step change. The findings of our review were encouraging, as they demonstrate that we are on a journey, and that pockets of change show we are on the right track. 

With gender equality a cornerstone of our Global Strategy 2022–32, we now have the right evidence to address gaps and opportunities and to strengthen our gender equality approach. We are committing more resources – time, money and expertise – to progress this agenda right across the federation, from members, country programmes and teams and across all functions. Perhaps most importantly, we address gender equality within our internal organisation and culture. We know that our vision of water, sanitation and hygiene for all will not be reached without substantial work to reduce gender inequalities.

Chelsea Huggett is Technical Lead – Equality and Rights at WaterAid Australia and Martina Nee is Policy and Advocacy Advisor for Gender Equality, at WaterAid Sweden.

Top image: Nitsuh (15, left) and Belayush (teacher, 24) who are part of the gender group at their school in Frat, Ethiopia.