World Toilet Day: The link between gender equality and sanitation


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​​Junaid Ahmad, World Bank Group Senior Director for Water, and Caren Grown, World Bank Group Senior Director for Gender, wrote a blog for Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of World Toilet Day. Read the blog below, which originally appeared in Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Advancing equality for women in developing countries is not only the right thing to do, it makes good economic sense.

Gender equality enhances productivity, improves well-being, and renders governing bodies more representative. And yet around the world, discriminatory laws, preferences, and social norms ensure that girls and women learn less, earn less, own less, enjoy far fewer opportunities to achieve their potential, and suffer disproportionately in times of scarcity or shock.

This harms not only individuals, but families, communities, and economies. Impossible choices often lie at the intersection of poverty and inequality—choices no parent should ever have to make: Will my daughter go out to work or fetch water? Who’s sick enough, or valued enough, to tap a limited supply of antibiotics? Which child will get clean water and which will go to school? ​Will my daughter attend class while she’s menstruating although there are no private toilets, or should she stay home to avoid embarrassment? Will she risk shame by relieving herself in the open by day or possible rape if she waits for privacy after dark?

One major improvement governments can make to address gender inequality—and some of these terrible choices—is to improve sanitation and water service to households. Improving these services would reduce excess deaths of girls and women in infancy, early childhood, and reproductive years, as was the case for rich countries in the early 19th century and for countries such as Bangladesh, China, and Vietnam over the last two decades.

​​Improved sanitation also positively affects the entire community by reducing cases of diarrhea, allowing children to better retain nutrition, and improving children’s cognitive skills, lifetime health, and future earnings.

It’s easier said than done, of course.

Nearly 1 billion people lack access to safe water and 2.5 billion globally lack access to sanitation, such as a toilet or pit latrine. One billion still practice open defecation, mostly in rural areas. The challenge to eliminate this practice by 2030 is significant, but we now know what it takes, and we remain optimistic this goal can be achieved with strong political will, a focus on behavior change, solutions that offer better value than open defecation, stronger local, public sector delivery systems, and the right incentive structures.

In urban areas, strengthening accountability, management, and regulation of sanitation and water service providers improves service delivery to households, taking some of the worst options off the table. Some developing countries are using a similar approach to achieve better outcomes in health and education.

Investments in Better Sanitation Benefit Women 

Haiti is investing in better sanitation and water services to build resilience against the spread of disease such as cholera. In rural China, a major drinking water treatment program proved effective at boosting education,  increasing grades completed by an average of 1.08 years. One study found that girls benefited much more from improved water treatment than boys in schooling attainment, and that the program can explain gender gaps in educational attainment.

The relationship between gender equality and sanitation and water services is reciprocal. Just as investing in sanitation and water services benefits gender equity, improvements in gender equity can meanwhile advance improved sanitation and water services. In Bangladesh, a program offered cash incentives for girls to attend schools and for schools to increase their enrollment of girls. Enrollment increased and importantly, schools invested in toilets, knowing many girls would not enroll without private sanitation facilities.

In Papua New Guinea, the World Bank Group’s Water and Sanitation Program supported a policy that helped women have more say in decisions around the number and type of toilets built and where they should be located, improving overall quality of services. In parts of India, previous studies have found that giving power to women at the local level through political quotas has led to greater provision of public goods—such as sanitation and water— that mattered more to women.

Ending poverty by 2030 and boosting shared prosperity—the World Bank Group’s twin corporate goals—is possible only if we continue pressing to fully understand such obstacles to gender equity and service delivery.

World Toilet Day on Nov. 19 presents an opportunity to expose these impediments to dignity and development and scale up efforts to tackle them once and for all. Along with our client countries and partners in academia, UN agencies, the private sector, and civil society groups, such as BRAC,, WaterAid, and ONE DROP, are working to achieve this—we can’t wait.

Related links:

Feature story: On World Toilet Day, Focus is on Equality and Dignity
Taking Sanitation to Scale in Vietnam
Blog: Philippines: Owning a Toilet is a Sign of Progress​

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