Is wastewater a she?

Posted 25 September 2017

Women collecting drinking water
Although it’s widely acknowledged that women shoulder the responsibility for collecting drinking water in many developing countries, wastewater and sanitation are also gendered issues that require attention. 

UTS Institute for Sustainable Future’s Professor Cynthia Mitchell spoke on the topic at World Water Week (WWW) in Stockholm last month, outlining the heightened risk posed to women with limited access to sanitation in her presentation, ‘Is wastewater a she?’.

“Women’s experience of not having access to toilets is different from men’s, and it adds to the [water] problem significantly. One of the most fundamental issues is that women are at risk in places where open defecation is the norm,” Mitchell said. 

“Not having a private bathroom is not only more challenging for women, simply due to our different anatomy, but also women are at heightened risk of assault. 

“When we talk about young women going to school, menstruation is an incredibly significant issue. There are a lot of cultural things affecting that, but the reality is that a lot of young women don’t have access to toilets at school in order to be able to deal with it.”

Further to heightened risk of assault and barriers to education, the lack of access to effective sanitation exposes women to pathogens due to their primary care-giving roles, Mitchell said. 

“Women are more likely to be in the home and they are more likely to be associated with sanitation – looking after young children, for example. They are more at risk of disease due to pathogens as a result of their exposure to wastewater,” Mitchell said. 

“Women are also more likely to be exposed to pathogens and toxins when it comes to reusing wastewater for growing food.”

Mitchell’s presentation at WWW aimed to highlight how a lack of women working in the water sector worldwide impacts decisions regarding wastewater needs and infrastructure. 

“It’s absolutely fascinating that across the world, according to the data we have from the International Labour Organisation, in no country is there more than about 15% women involved in the formal water and wastewater sector. This has a direct influence on where we place our attention – what is planned and invested in, and what gets overlooked,” she said. 

“In my presentation, I talked about worldviews and how our worldview limits what we can see. The intent is not to say that men are deliberately doing something wrong or bad. 

“The idea is to recognise that everyone has a worldview, and it is strongly influenced by our culture and therefore our gender. So the best we can do is to notice what our worldview includes so we can also notice what it excludes. I asked the question, ‘What if we flipped the situation around?’.

“What would change if it were 85% women and 15% men operating the sector? One clear response from the audience was that we’d have more toilets, because they are a lot more important for women than men.

“At the end of the day, the goal of course is equitable participation for women and men at every point in the water cycle.” 

Take a look at the Cynthia Mitchell’s full presentation here.

Get engaged in the conversation of sanitation, hygiene and women at the World Toilet Summit in Melbourne this November.
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Event: World Toilet Summit 2017: Melbourne I 20-21 November