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Here’s how lack of access to water holds back gender equity

It’s time to get a grip on water and sanitation issues facing women, as a lack of access to water and toilets is having a devastating effect on gender equity worldwide.

That’s according to WaterAid CEO Rosie Wheen, who will be presenting on WaterAid’s State of the World’s Toilets Report at the upcoming World Toilet Summit in November. She said the new report will tackle water and sanitation issues from a gendered perspective, with the aim of opening up focused avenues for improvement.

“The State of the World's Toilet Report will shine a light on sanitation from the perspective of gender equity and empowerment of women and girls,” Wheen said.

“Everyone has a right to health and dignity, but girls and women have specific needs around sanitation. The report will explore those needs, but also highlight that if women and girls aren't actively participating on decision-making on an equal footing, those needs can't be met.”

Wheen said the report will assess the impacts sanitation has on women and girls from a lifecycle approach, as the problems arising are many and varied depending on a woman’s biological context.

“The impact of a lack of sanitation on children under five years old relates to their vulnerability to diarrheal diseases and malnutrition, but as they reach adolescence we start to see some of the particular impacts for girls,” she said.

“We know that many girls don't go to school because there aren't toilets at school for them to manage their periods, and then through to adulthood where women are trying to manage their menstruation in their workplace.

“We have statistics on the impacts on women not having a toilet in their workplace, but also the risk that both adolescent girls and women face when they don't have access to a toilet in terms of risk of attack and violence. There are countless stories of women being attacked while trying to go to the toilet.”

Another area of women’s lives affected heavily by a lack of access to sanitation is motherhood, and Wheen said the risk of death in or resulting from childbirth is dramatically increased when women don’t have access to water and sanitation.

“In regards to motherhood, a women’s odds of dying in childbirth rise three-fold if they don't have access to water and sanitation. Post-birth women often face incontinence and obstetric fistula and need even more access to a toilet,” Wheen said.

“Furthermore, older-age women going through menopause with increased heavy bleeding is another area of concern that is very rarely discussed. We'll be shining a light on all of these biological needs, but also the social factors that add to gender discrimination.”

Wheen said it is crucial to consider the specific issues faced by women and girls when tackling Sustainable Development Goal 6 for water and sanitation, as they are central to achieving many of the other SDGs.

“How can we achieve universal access to education when schools don't have toilets so that adolescent girls can't stay in school? How can we achieve universal health care for all if a third of healthcare facilities in developing countries don't have access to water and sanitation, meaning that women are dying in childbirth?” Wheen said.

“How can we end hunger and achieve the nutrition targets of SDG 2 if we know that 50% of malnutrition is attributable not just to lack of food but also to repeated episodes of diarrhoea?

“We can’t view SDG 6 in isolation. In order to achieve the other goals, it is absolutely essential that water and sanitation issues are resolved. To create a healthier, fairer, more sustainable world, we will be limited while there still are hundreds of millions of people that don't have access to a toilet.”

Interested in learning more about global sanitation concerns? Register for the World Toilet Summit, held 20-21 November at Melbourne Convention Centre. To learn more click here