The gendered effects of COVID-19 on access to water, sanitation and hygiene in East Africa

East Africa
Image: WaterAid/ Genaye Eshetu

COVID-19 has affected the entire world. Not only has it claimed thousands of lives, tested health systems and shaken economies, but it has also widened gender inequalities, including in water, sanitation and hygiene.

When the World Health Organization declared the pandemic, many countries in East Africa announced lockdowns, enforced by armed police and military personnel. The strength and speed of the measures deployed reflected the concern about the damage the virus could cause if allowed to spread, specifically in high-density urban areas. Like most crises, the hardest hit by the pandemic and the responses to it, are those who are already marginalised or facing multiple inequalities. Women and girls, in particular, have been disadvantaged by the broad economic and social consequences of this crisis. 

In collaboration with the University of Leeds and FEMNET, Water Aid East Africa undertook a study on the gender and equity effects of COVID-19 on access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in East Africa. The study combined two pieces of work.

  1. A theoretical desk-based review of COVID-19 response plans and policies
  2. Qualitative research in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda with girls, women and people with disabilities who live in informal settlements. This research aimed to capture how the COVID-19 emergency response had affected their ability to meet their WASH needs.

We applied a social inclusion and feminist lens to data analysis to help understand the ways in which gender inequalities have been affected or thought about within the scope of WASH emergency response work. We also developed case studies for each country to highlight key findings.

The study aims to:

  • contribute to the existing body of knowledge around COVID-19 response in relation to gender and WASH
  • provide evidence and practical examples of what is needed in gender-responsive emergency WASH programming that aims to tackle existing or exacerbated inequalities
  • recognise the direct impact of COVID-19 on women, girls and people with disabilities, in terms of their access to WASH
  • access what needs to be done to rectify the situation, with regards to policy and practice, building alliances and allocating funds  

Top image: Gishu Jafar, 28, demonstrates handwashing during a hygiene behavioural change campaign in the marketplace of Safoge, Bale, Oromia region, Ethiopia, March 2019.