Strengthening an inclusive WASH ecosystem in India
  • Nilachal Mishra, Partner |
  • Dr Abhinav Akhilesh, Partner |
5 min read

As the COVID-19 pandemic escalated, the first line of defence suggested was frequent handwashing. While a seemingly simple act, emerging economies grappled to ensure universal access to running water to large populations due to factors like intermittent or distant water supplies and lack of infrastructure. Vulnerable population groups, especially women, were disproportionately affected . The ongoing World Water Week, with the theme Building Resilience Faster, and Women’s Equality Day, being celebrated on August 26, serve as reminders of the importance of including a roadmap for equitable access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities.

Lack of access to clean and private toilet facilities and water have contributed to increased rates of disease, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), reduced economic freedoms, and, as a result, social stigmatisation for women. Traveling to distant water sources, poor lighting in community and public toilet facilities, and open defecation have increased safety and security risks for women. The stigma arising from a lack of access to menstrual products has led to girls missing school, in turn impacting their education, mental health and future work opportunities. A 2014 industry report pointed out that 23 per cent of female students in India drop out of school on reaching puberty. Lack of suitable WASH facilities in the workplace undermine women’s access to decent work . It has been estimated that women spend nearly 200 million hours each day collecting water, and spend 266 million hours searching for a toilet, taking away valuable time to generate their own income. Budgeting issues exist too. Women use toilets not only for their own needs, but as a result of being primary caregivers for their children and other household activities like washing clothes. As a result, the cost of use of toilets incurred by women is greater than that of men.

The Government of India (GoI) has instituted several programmes in urban and rural WASH. The Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban (SBM-U) and Grameen (SBM-G), Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and Jal Jeevan Mission are cognizant of these challenges and pay attention to the WASH needs of women. SBM’s focus on construction of individual household toilets has led to a marked improvement in the lives of women who earlier travelled long distances or waited for long hours to relieve themselves. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) has issued a Toilet Cleanliness Protocol for Public and Community Toilets to help maintain minimum standards of cleanliness and include parameters such as installation of sanitary napkin vending machines and incinerators in women’s toilets, adequate lighting and presence of female caretakers in the premises. Similarly, the AMRUT mission seeks to bring piped water to homes, thus reducing women’s workload and protecting them from various health risks from dirty water. The Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation had, as early as 2015, issued the National Guidelines on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) paving the way for the adoption of safe menstrual hygiene practices

Along with the government, efforts of donor agencies, international aid organisations and advocacy groups have contributed significantly in driving the women and WASH agenda forward. For example, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is a key partner in the GoI WASH programs and has renovated WASH facilities in 60 schools over the past two years, benefitting over 17,995 children with 57 per cent being girls. Similarly, the National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (NFSSM) Alliance is working with state and city governments to mainstream gender inclusivity through evidence-based research and capacity building plans . The impact on the ground is visible in several gender responsive models for and by women; for example, Ambikapur’s decentralised Zero Waste Model is completely managed by over 9,000 self-help group (SHGs) , members known as Swachhata Didis, and is today being replicated across Chhattisgarh. Under SBM-G, over 300 women masons known as Rani Mistris have been trained in Jharkhand for constructing individual household toilets.

While the ball is rolling, there is a long way to go for gender inclusion to become the norm in India’s sanitation journey. Sanitation infrastructure must be developed keeping in mind the needs of women. The practice of collecting gender disaggregated data and assessment of public sanitation infrastructure in response to the needs of women by cities becomes the first key step in that direction. ULBs must be encouraged to develop city sanitation plans with participation of women including sanitation workers and implemented on-ground through sanitation forums and community structures with adequate gender representation. Due attention must also be paid to the capacity building of female sanitation workers by linking them to programs such as National Skill Development Mission to help them upskill or move into alternate vocations. Efforts must be made towards inclusive budgeting and encouraging women business leaders and entrepreneurs in sanitation businesses is another crucial focus area. Finally, addressing gender concerns under WASH cannot be a standalone process and it is critical to involve men as partners in the process. Additionally, it is important for stakeholders to develop a gender-sensitive lens in WASH program implementation through periodic trainings on various acts and legislations, schemes and programs for women and gender responsive budgeting frameworks and reporting structures.

It is vital to recognise that gender integration and mainstreaming requires critical thinking and strategic interventions at every stage. Inclusiveness and equity must be embedded not just in policy and planning but in our mindsets and behaviour to ensure that we truly live the SDG mandate of “Leaving No One Behind”.

1. Policy Brief: The Impact of Covid-19 on Women, UN Women, Pg, 2, 9 April 2020
2. Violence, Gender and Wash, A Practitioner’s Toolkit, Briefing Note 4, Loughborough University
3. Dasra, Spot on!, pg 19, 2015
4. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: A Pathway to Realising Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls
5. Water.org, The Water Crisis
6. Gender Responsive Budget Analysis on Urban Development Sector, CEPT University, CUE Working Paper 34, April 2017
7. Menstrual Hygiene Management National Guidelines 2015
8. Partnership for Gender Equality, USAID
9. National Fecal Sludge and Septage Management Alliance
10. United Nations Centre for Regional Development, Zero Waste Model, Ambikapur
11. Rani Mistri training is Paving the Way for Women Empowerment