Lifting and shifting women's household work burden through community water, sanitation and hygiene

People gather at a community meeting in rural Timor-Leste.
Image: WaterAid Timor-Leste

Often women do substantially more unpaid water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) -related work at home and in their communities than men do. Improving WASH access brings benefits for women and girls, such as reduced time carrying water. Beyond this, we aim to be more gender transformative (promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment as central to interventions) and challenge the social norms associated with household labour.

In Timor-Leste, we are using community WASH projects as an opportunity to motivate households towards redistribution of women’s domestic work burden, and to support women into community-level leadership and technical roles. Read the three key steps in how we developed our approach, and explore our practical tools and the key lessons learned.

Step 1: Undertaking participatory research to learn about gender norms related to household WASH work

In 2012, we analysed the roles and responsibilities of women and men in relation to WASH work, capturing the findings in the report Now we feel like respected adults. We also asked communities what gender changes had occurred after a WASH project. Key findings included:

  • Women reported a significant burden from household tasks such as collecting water and cleaning.
  • After the project, women reported men would collect water, if the water was closer to home than before it.
  • Preferences and decision making: women reported that they wanted more opportunities to be community leaders and saw WASH committees as one way to help that happen.

We did a lot of things such as spend a lot of time to collect water from a far spring. This created problems like physical fighting among us at home.

– A woman from Manuquibia Community, 2012 research.

Step 2: Programming: developing a facilitation guide to tackle gender norms

We set about addressing the issues raised in our findings by embedding community dialogue approaches into rural WASH project implementation. Between 2013 and 2016 we developed Exploring gender aspects of community water, sanitation and hygiene: a manual for facilitating dialogue between women and men in communities. We use the manual to guide us to embed discussions and activities about gender norms with communities at five key points of WASH project implementation.

We co-designed the activities by testing tools with communities and through training of trainers, to build skills along the way. The purposes of the dialogue sessions are to:

  • Strengthen community understanding on rights of women and men, boys and girls.
  • Make visible and valued the activities of women and men in the family and community.
  • Support the community to imagine and to realise positive change towards gender equality.

Step 3: Understanding the impact: reviewing the approach

In 2019, we aimed to find out what had changed for communities in support of greater gender equality as a result of implementing the transformative approach.

In partnership with the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney (ISF-UTS), we examined the strategic and practical gender changes that men and women had experienced at community and household levels. The study engaged 172 people across nine communities with an explicit focus on reflection, learning and action research with 18 field staff. The findings are captured in Review of the implementation of WaterAid's gender manual and facilitated sessions in Timor-Leste.

Through recent training and activities, women can also make decisions when to build pipes, and we can also become managers of technical finance in the community.

– Quote from a women’s group discussion.

Communities reported that the facilitated discussions led to positive changes such as: men and women being more willing to share household tasks and working better together; women having more status and being more involved in household-level decision making; and men doing more water collection and household hygiene work.

In partnership with CARE Timor-Leste, we are drawing on the study findings to strengthen monitoring systems, improve facilitators’ skills and support government and non-government rural WASH actors to also address women’s unfair work.