Overcoming gender inequality through water, sanitation and hygiene


During my 12 years of work experience in the water and sanitation sector, it has been evident that gender inequality and poverty exclude large numbers of people from enjoying the benefits of water supply and sanitation facilities and processes aimed at their improvement. There is a traditional concept that mainstreaming gender in water is a matter of women, and only women speak about the issue, whereas the policy makers are mostly men. However, the term gender does not simply refer to women or men, but to the way their qualities, behaviours, and identities are determined through the process of socialisation.

The impacts of the degradation of the environment on people’s everyday lives are not the same for men and women. When the environment is degraded, women’s day-to-day activities, such as water collection, require more time, leaving less time for productive activities. In Bangladesh, due to arsenic pollution and saline intrusion in ground water, women and children in rural areas must walk longer distances to find water when it becomes scarce. It is also the same in urban areas, where they are required to wait in line for long hours at communal water points.

Drinking water in sufficient quantity and quality is one of the most basic human needs and it is a human right. In November 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, United Nations adopted General Comment No. 15 on the right to water. Comment No. 15 also defined the right to water as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. Furthermore, one of the aims of the Millennium Development Goal 7 on Environmental Sustainability is to reduce by half the number of people who have no access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation.

In line with this fact and BRAC’s commitment to the poor, the WASH programme has been implemented with the aim to achieve the MDGs related to water and sanitation in an integrated manner since 2006. This is one of the largest WASH programmes in Bangladesh. The programme focuses on providing sustainable and well-used services to the poor and hardcore poor, and among these, to women in particular. Till date, the programme has served 2.89 million people through different water options to increase access to safe water supply.

Helping to reduce the burden on women

To visit one of the BRAC WASH piped water supply systems in Mirzapur, Hathazari Upazila in Chittagong, you have to climb a steep hill. “Before BRAC implemented its Safe Water Project, women of this village had to walk up and down to the only hand pump, which was situated at the bottom of the hill. It was very difficult for them to carry filled water buckets up the hill. We used water only for extreme necessity. Now, 60 families of our community get safe water from 13 tap points,” expressed Mr. Meham Mussa, Chairman of the Piped Water Committee.

Ms. Sumi Akhter is the caretaker of the system. She has received training on how to operate the system. She turns on the switch in the morning and in the evening for an hour for the use of the community. “It is a pleasure to work as a caretaker as we are women and we suffer more if the system is out of order. Thus, I am not only taking care of the system because I am paid for the work, but I do it as a representative of women, so that they don’t have to suffer because of water scarcity.”

Another innovative initiative of our programme is two- and three-headed tube wells that help to reduce women’s work burden as well as time required for water collection. One three-headed and nine two-headed tube wells have been installed so far. This type of tube well helps cover a large number of people by using the same safe aquifer. Women are using water from these tube wells for drinking, cooking, washing vegetables and utensils, etc. so it may be worth trying in more areas, since it increases the number of people who can take water at the same time.

The many foot soldiers of the BRAC WASH Programme

We know that only meeting the practical needs of women by providing facilities does not improve women’s condition if we do not develop their capacity in water management and decision-making processes, both at home and within the community. The BRAC WASH Programme has been looking into this issue since the beginning of the programme implementation.

Gender is generally associated with unequal power and access to choices and resources. Poor people have lower capacity to pay for water, sanitation and hygiene products and services, and lack the time for unpaid work and meetings. However, the different positions of women and men are influenced by historical, religious, economic and cultural realities. These relations and responsibilities can and do change over time. For this purpose, Village WASH Committees (VWCs) have been formed in each union, and they are the real foot soldiers of the programme.

Each VWC consists of six women and five men, all from different walks of life. Women and men from non-poor and hardcore poor families, as well as adolescents, represent the different age and socio-economic conditions. In this way, their problems can be identified and understood in order to meet their demands, which differ from one group to the next. The Village WASH Committee is responsible for allocating and managing WASH resources by identifying clients from poor and hardcore poor groups, selecting sites for community water sources, mobilising funds from local people and organisations to invest in the village’s sanitation, and identifying households to receive sanitation grants from BRAC and the government’s Annual Development Programme.

VWCs also provide a platform for women to acquire leadership qualities and move up the ladder. Mrs. Mobasshera Akhter Rumi, secretary of the VWC from 2006 to 2011, received a three-day leadership training from BRAC, where she learned how to use social mapping, motivating people to improve hygiene practices, interacting with different types of people, etc. She used to dislike her husband’s political work, however, because of her work as VWC secretary, she was asked by the community to stand for local union elections. She surveyed her popularity among potential voters and when she found that she had a good reputation, she decided to stand. She is now an elected Union representative, and has even stayed on as an advisor to the VWC, something that BRAC supports to maintain good relations between VWCs and the local government.

BRAC WASH Programme started with an ambitious goal for improving and sustaining public health conditions by empowering the powerless, with the hope that the process will continue even if the programme ends in the future.

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