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Gender based violence and sanitation, hygiene and water

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Gender based violence

Recent high profile cases of women and girls being violently raped and killed in India, South Africa and elsewhere have made the ugliness of gender based violence more visible. Globally it is estimated that up to 70% of women will face gender based violence at some point in her lifetime depending on the country in which she lives.1 2 Gender based violence is a widespread and complex issue rooted in power differences and structural inequality between men and women, although men and boys can also suffer GBV. Experiences also vary by other social factors, including ethnicity, caste, age, sexual orientation, marital status, disability and other differentiations.3

Why is GBV important in the context of WASH?

So why are we looking at this issue from the perspective of the WASH professional? We are not GBV or protection professionals and already have large workloads and responding to the large number of people who still lack access to water and sanitation is a massive challenge.

The reality is that the risk of GBV can impact significantly on the access of women and girls and in some cases boys and men, to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene.4 In both urban and rural contexts, girls and women regularly face harassment when going to the toilet, and may delay drinking and eating in order to wait until nightfall to relieve themselves. Given the taboos around defecation and menstruation and the frequent lack of privacy, women and girls, may prefer to go to the toilet or use bathing units under the cover of darkness.


Women, girls and boys may have to walk long distances to collect water or to find water to do their laundry in. Walking to remote locations or using WASH facilities after dark puts women, girls and boys at risk of harassment, sexual assault and rape. This can result in unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, being accused of being unfaithful by husbands, being disowned by families, or mocked by other community members; and mental health challenges such as increased fear and stress.

Additional challenges include situations in which women and children have to queue for extended time periods at water points facing fights with other service users, or face punishment for their late return home. In conflict situations, men may be vulnerable to abduction or death when accessing water points outside the boundaries of a camp.  

As WASH programs seek to improve gender equity in projects, women may take on what are perceived to be traditionally male roles, such as being part of a WASH Committee or accepting a paid task (e.g. pump mechanic). As a result, they may face psychological abuse, such as exclusion from relevant meetings, or becoming the subject of scorn by community members, including other women, who do not appreciate their willingness to take on a new role. They may even face physical violence. Similarly, staff within WASH organisations may be the perpetrators of, or face violence, because of their gender. Female professionals training for or working in the WASH sector, may have to fend off sexual advances requested for grades, jobs, or promotion. On the other side of the spectrum, staff members who control the distribution of non food items and the use of facilities may abuse their power by demanding sexual favours from vulnerable individuals.

WASH professionals working at community level in conflict affected areas or where GBV is particularly high, can sometimes be the first point of contact for survivors of GBV, even though they are not protection or GBV specialists. During my first overseas assignment as an engineer, over 20 years ago, I experienced violence against women on the project I was working on5 and had to support one woman working as an assistant technician to obtain protection and health support in response to a particularly violent incident. This made me acutely aware of my own knowledge gaps on this issue. The reality is that the wider societal norms, practices and power dynamics intersect with sanitation, water and hygiene. Therefore, as professionals, it is critical for us to at least understand the basics of power dynamics, what we can do to minimise risks, and where we should go to link with those who are specialists in this area, when incidents do occur. 

Research on GBV and WASH


In order to better understand and address the critical issue of GBV within WASH policy and practice, WaterAid, through the SHARE Consortium is undertaking research to document the connections between GBV, water, sanitation and hygiene and to develop practical guidance on what the sector can do better.  A review, analysis and consultation process of existing documentation and practitioners’ experiences in different contexts around the world is underway. 

The result will be a practitioners’ toolkit aimed at building the capacity of WASH practitioners working in a range of rural-urban and development-humanitarian contexts. Whilst developing these materials we are considering that most of the professionals working in the sector are not protection or GBV specialists, and most may not have the confidence, skills or willingness to undertake high profile lobbying on the need for increased political and legal rights of women and girls, which obviously is an essential element of changing from the status quo. But as WASH professionals we do have the opportunity to influence through the way we work and communicate with communities and staff and colleagues, and to acknowledge the problem and ensure that, within our and their spheres of influence, risks related to WASH are minimised. Examples of ways that we can respond to this issue practically may be through incorporating safety concerns into transect walks or undertaking safety audits while planning projects6; involving adolescent girls as a particularly vulnerable group in project design7, using role play to encourage communities to consider and design their own strategies for minimising risks; and ensuring that our own staff do not become perpetrators of GBV by ensuring that codes of conduct are established, discussed and enforced.  

Call for contributions

Have you or your colleagues come across GBV in relation to sanitation, hygiene or water in projects you have worked on? Have you specifically considered how to address such issues in your work? 

We would be interested to hear from anyone who can share examples of good practice or ideas on what we should be doing better in relation to minimising GBV related to WASH within our own spheres of influence; or who would otherwise be interested to contribute to this research, as well as any organisation or individual who would be interested to receive the final outputs. If so please contact us through the following two emails: sjhouse.majisafi@gmail.com and gbv@wateraid.org. We look forward to hearing from you.  

Sarah House is an independent consultant working on GBV and WASH research on behalf of WaterAid.

Images: Water and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC)

  • 1. Much violence against women and girls occurs in the home, so called domestic violence, but it is also common in public spaces
  • 2. General Assembly (2006) In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women: Report of the Secretary General. A/61/122/Add.1. 6 July 2006; World Health Organisation (2005) Summary Report, WHO Multi-Country Study on Women's Health and Domestic Violence Against Women, Initial results on prevalence, health outcomes and women's responses; and Violence Against Women, UNiTE to End Violence Against Woman, Fact Sheet: http://endviolence.un.org/pdf/pressmaterials/unite_the_situation_en.pdf
  • 3. General Assembly (2006) In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women: Report of the Secretary General. A/61/122/Add.1. 6 July 2006
  • 4. Examples from a selection of country contexts of the links between GBV and WASH: Amnesty International (2011) Where is the Dignity in that? Women in the Solomon islands slums denied sanitation and safety; Massey, K. (October 2011), Insecurity and Shame, Exploration of the impact of the lack of sanitation on women in the slums of Kampala, Uganda, Briefing Note, WaterAid; UN-Habitat, Women in Cities International, Plan Because I am a Girl (2013) Adolescent Girls' Views on Safety in Cities; Findings of the Because I am a Girl Urban Programme study in Cairo, Delhi, Hanoi, Kampala and Lima; Women in Cities International, Jagori, IDRC (2011) Gender and essential services in low-income communities, Report findings of the action research project, Women's rights and access to water and sanitation in Asian cities; Thompson, J, Folifac, F, Gaskin, S.J. (2011) Fetching Water in the Unholy Hours of the Night; The impacts of a water crisis on girls' sexual health in semi-urban Cameroon, Girlhood Studies 4(2), Winter 2011: 111-129, Berghahn Journals
  • 5. House, S. (1998), Gender Awareness of Engineers Working in Development: Learning from the South, Science Technology and Development, Ed. Forster, J and Stokke, O, Frank Cass Publishers, pp. 119-134
  • 6. Mehrotra, S.T. (2010) A Handbook on Women's Safety Audits in Low-Income Urban Neighborhoods: A focus on essential services, November 2010, Jagori & Women in Cities International
  • 7. Schulte, S. and Rizvi, Z. (2012) In Search of Safety & Solutions: Somali Refugee Adolescent Girls at Sheder and Aw Barre Camps, Ethiopia, Women's Refugee Commission
Date: 17 May 2013