Published on The Water Blog

Safety or access to WASH - A choice no woman should have to make

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as we observe these 16 days of activism, let us remember that nobody should have to choose between water and sanitation and their safety. as we observe these 16 days of activism, let us remember that nobody should have to choose between water and sanitation and their safety.

The failure to address gender-based violence (GBV) not only affects female agency, but also impedes access to one of the most basic human needs: safe and hygienic water and sanitation services, particularly for low-income households.

A concrete illustration of this comes from a female head of household with a 15-year-old daughter in the Dominican Republic’s Salsipuedes neighborhood. During the day, she and her daughter could use a relative’s sanitary facilities. At night, however, their only choice was using a bucket in their home. That’s due to the risks of violence associated with venturing outside. Because in this region of the Dominican Republic, more than half of women over the age of 15 report experiencing violence in public settings during their lifetimes[1].

There are many reasons for this, including – in part – the norms established early on among adolescents that fail to fully recognize the problems and perils associated with violence against women and girls.

In the Water Global Practice (GP) here at the World Bank, we are doing our part to make a difference. Our assistance can improve access to on-site sanitation and water (ensuring people have access to these vital resources at home) as well as to communal sanitation with proper safety standards (such as proper locks, privacy and lighting). However, as this woman’s story makes all too clear, even improved sanitary facilities cannot fully address the sanitary environment if gender-based violence in public spaces inhibits their use by women. This is particularly the case for lower income households, which are more likely to rely on such communal facilities.

Unfortunately, as documented during these 16 days of activism against GBV, such levels of violence are not unique to the Dominican Republic, and sadly have been rising exponentially under COVID. The nexus between GBV and reduced access to water and sanitation is particularly acute among refugees and displaced persons; for example, such women in 15 African countries flagged the increased need for water collection due to the new hygiene practices; nearly a third of women interviewed reported incidents of harassment and sexual violence on the way to water points, and more than one in five described harassment at water points. [2] Among this group, around three-quarters of women spoke of an increase in intimate partner violence, over half cited sexual violence and one in three observed a growth in the levels of early and forced marriage. The women noted how the stress of the lockdown and its economic repercussions not only triggered increased violence by their husbands, but also highlighted the new dangers affiliated with checkpoints set up by security personnel to regulate the movement of people.

But GBV not only affects access to water and sanitation - it also taxes the productivity and retention of female staff at water and sanitation utilities.  A study conducted by IFC of three private sector companies in Fiji showed that high rates of domestic and sexual violence translated into lost staff time and reduced productivity equivalent to almost ten days of work per employee each year.  

So, what exactly can we do about this?

First, as gender norms drive behavior, in addition to focusing on safer communal facility design, the Water GP is making efforts to go deeper and beyond the infrastructure. This is the case with the Teresina Enhancing Municipal Governance and Quality of Life Project, which tackled GBV through helping develop a Municipal Plan of Women’s Policies; supporting a program focused on women’s economic empowerment; and providing technical assistance to the Secretary of Women’s Policies to strengthen policies and services to prevent violence against women - including survivor support.   

Second, through peer-to-peer platforms such as Equal Aqua, the GP is facilitating the dissemination of practical strategies to address the increase in GBV among utilities staff and customers. For example, in a partnership meeting among utilities and partners during the first wave of the pandemic, a large Argentine utility shared its action protocol for addressing workplace and intimate partner violence, including the adoption of a discreet “code” word that allows staff experiencing gender-based violence to signal their need for help and activate a network that connects staff to either a national response line or police assistance.

And third, by engaging with our World Bank partners, including the Social Sustainability and Inclusion GP and Gender Group, and other key partners such as the Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership (GWSP), USAID and others, we are beginning to address the underlying norms on GBV. Inclusion is one of GWSP’s five themes, and GWSP’s recent Annual Report highlights much progress and many lessons from this theme.

So, as we observe these 16 days of activism, let us remember that nobody should have to choose between water and sanitation and their safety.  Now, more than ever, we need to strengthen our collaboration across sectors, and re-double our efforts to eradicate GBV so stories like the one from Dominican Republic become a thing of that past.


Jennifer J. Sara

Global Director, Climate Change Group, World Bank

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