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Handwashing is one of the most affordable yet effective solutions in preventing diseases and the spread of infections, therefore saving lives. Keeping hands clean can prevent 1 in 3 diarrheal illnesses and 1 in 5 respiratory infections, and a host of other sanitation-related diseases. Access to the facilities that enable people to safely wash their hands – water and sanitation – is also recognized by the United Nations as a human right, fundamental to everyone’s health, dignity and prosperity.

Yet, billions of people are still living without safely managed water and sanitation, significantly impacting their ability to wash their hands. Only 15% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa have access to basic handwashing facilities with soap and water with even this rare access is further subject to gender inequalities. Women and men often have differentiated access, use, experiences and knowledge of water, and sanitation. Gender inequality in access to water and sanitation facilities affects other human rights, including women’s and girls’ rights to health, adequate housing, education and food.

Why is access to water and sanitation gendered

While there has been significant progress, gender inequality is still one of the most widespread human rights violations globally. António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, recently said that “Gender equality is going backwards, with women’s lives getting worse: from poverty to choices around sexual and reproductive health. We need concerted action to empower all women and girls and achieve true equality in our societies.”

The inequalities in access to water and sanitation are a result both of social constructions of gender, which rely on harmful stereotypes about women’s and girls’ roles and responsibilities in the household and community, and of biological factors which only impact women and girls, specifically sexual and reproductive health issues.

Women and girls need access to water and sanitation to manage their menstruation needs safely and with dignity. Inability to access these vital services can mean absenteeism during menstruation and, ultimately, an end to their education. In addition, one in three women is relieving themselves in the open due to the absence of safe toilets, compromising their dignity and safety.

Women and girls across Sub-Saharan Africa are largely responsible for water provision in their households, spending over 770 million hours a week fetching water, often from distances averaging 5km a day. The advent of climate change is making this task more difficult, with increasing water scarcity making women walk long distances, increasing the risk of sexual abuse and gender-based violence.

Furthermore, from a policy perspective, it is predominantly men making the political decisions to drive investments in specific sectors of the economy and this is why we find ourselves in the alarming situation in which we have better access to phones than toilets.

Gender-responsive measures for addressing inequalities

Public resources need to be mobilized for investment into basic water and sanitation infrastructures such as taps and toilets, thereby reducing the time spent looking for and collecting water. Freeing young girls of this burden by even half the time has been shown to increase their school attendance by 2.4%. Additionally, gender-aggregated toilets at schools keep more girls attending classes even during their menstruation periods and thus enabling them to fulfil their potential and actively contribute to socioeconomic development in their economies.

We can do more than taps and toilets. Issues related to handwashing also directly correlate to gender inequalities that pervade so many aspects of daily life for women. Since women directly and critically influence how water is used and managed in households, their voice is vital in governance and decision-making – we need to provide a seat for women at the decision-making table. Policies that aim to improve access to essential handwashing infrastructure must understand and address the gender-specific aspects of handwashing for all people and consider this in decisions related to legislation, policies or programs.

At Speak Up Africa, we view these as vital to uplifting women’s status in advancing hand washing and work to meaningfully engage them in decision-making processes and spaces that influence policies and programs related to them. We are working with grassroots organizations across Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal to build their capacity, leadership and participation in community and national decision-making platforms in diverse sectors including handwashing, hygiene and sanitation decisions on these issues directly affect them, their children and their families.

Furthermore, we continue to see political will and efforts toward creating an enabling environment for women to participate in national-level decisions regarding sustainable access to water and soap for handwashing. The development of the African Sanitation Policy Guidelines agreed upon last year, considers context-specific gender norms and how policies can address them to achieve safe sanitation. As a result, we hope to see the needs of women and girls at risk being addressed in the design and development of water and sanitation systems within institutional, public, community and emergency contexts.

We also need men to be part of the solution. While conventional wisdom focuses on the social norms and beliefs about women’s roles in households and communities, research in Senegal shows that including men in these interventions is critical to fostering behaviour change to washing hands with soap and water, given their role modelling in family settings. This results in a starting point for viewing the need for equality and an elevated role for women in handwashing and the broader chain of hygiene and sanitation.

Handwashing and access to water and sanitation services that enable people, especially women, to engage in one of the most cost-effective health interventions, form part of the essential services that all people require to enable them to exercise agency and live their lives with dignity, autonomy and health. We must do all that we can to address sustained access to water and sanitation, and in doing so achieve gender equality.

Article by Fara Ndiaye, Deputy Executive Director, Speak Up Africa

Public policy and advocacy expert, Fara Ndiaye is a founding member and Deputy Executive Director of Speak Up Africa. Over the past 13 years, Fara has conducted extensive policy research and campaigned on issues of universal health coverage, access to sanitation for all, and gender equality. She has served on various non-profit advisory committees including the Global Health Technologies Coalition, the Gavi Civil Society Organization Constituency Steering Committee and the African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation. These experiences have provided her with extensive experience in governance, accountability and strategic planning. Before joining Speak Up Africa, Fara spearheaded the communications and advocacy initiatives in Senegal for Malaria No More. Prior to that, she worked on migration issues for global organizations including the International Organization for Migration and the International Center for Migration and Health. Fara earned her bachelor’s degree in political science and international development at McGill University, Canada, and her master’s degree in international law from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Switzerland.

Speak Up Africa 

Based in Dakar, Senegal, Speak Up Africa is a political action and advocacy group dedicated to catalyzing leadership, fostering policy change, and increasing awareness of sustainable development in Africa. Through our platforms and relationships, and with the help of our partners, we ensure that decision-makers meet implementers, that solutions are presented, and that every sector – from individual citizens and civil society groups to global donors and business leaders –contributes to the dialogue and works to develop plans for concrete action for public health and sustainable development.

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