Through a Gender Lens: The Impact of Sanitation on Economic Development

A simple internet search on the growth of a country would pop up uncountable figures on how each country is performing economically. Digging deeper into it would display numbers showing how each country compares with its international counterpart or neighbouring countries. Governments boast of their economic growth figures on international platforms but do these figures translate into actual economic development? Seldom do these numbers take into account how growth affects each individual in an economy. In neglecting the intersectionality a country possesses, governments often fail to account for the needs of the more vulnerable,  and equitable access to resources takes a backseat. 

A classic example of this practice is the lack of discussion, and the subsequent lack of policy measures, on the provision of sanitation facilities across various developing countries. The neglect of sanitation tends to disproportionately affect women and girls globally since social constraints dictate women to carry out their sanitation activities at far off locations during odd hours. 

In most cultures and across low income countries in Asia and Africa, women and girls are primarily responsible for the management of household water supply, sanitation and health. It is a time-consuming and taxing activity that involves travelling great distances and leaving work or school if water is made available during working hours.

Yet, when policy discussions on sanitation take place, female users’ involvement in the design and location of sanitation facilities is kept severely limited. It is alarming how despite playing prominent roles and responsibilities in household water and sanitation, women are often out of the purview of consideration when such facilities are in the pipeline. Such discrimination leads to an excess burden on women and girls, and their productive participation in the economy suffers as a result since most of their time is spent performing unpaid domestic work.

Moreover, women are often subjected to abuse and gender-based violence when they are forced to walk to shared sanitation facilities or open defecation sites. The fear of sexual assault and harassment among women and girls while conducting sanitation activities has been documented extensively in places like Ethiopia, India and several refugee or internally-displaced persons' camps. There are several issues with women's access to open defecation. To reduce their vulnerability to sexual assault, they are forced to visit open defecation sites before dawn or at night, and in groups. This is proof of the looming fear of sexual violence that can limit freedom of movement and affect equal opportunities. 

Defecation in public causes its own set of issues, such as polluted water and an increase in the prevalence of water-borne illnesses, ultimately affecting the entire society at large. Women in India that can access public sanitation facilities find them typically filthy. In addition, men congregate near these facilities to verbally and sexually assault women as they attempt to use the facilities. Consequently, women tend to walk in groups to such facilities and often face time constraints and scheduling issues. The resulting health issues from poor sanitation, the absence of access to facilities at a convenient time and place, and the risk of violence has been severely under-investigated in sanitation-related research globally. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) came up with a measure called ‘sanitation insecurity score’, which measures the relationship between access to functioning sanitation facilities and psychological distress prevalent among women and found the former is predictive of the latter. 

In rural India, women and girls have a high sanitation insecurity score, which naturally leads to poor mental health. Further research on the physical and mental consequences of poor sanitation facilities on women, and how that deepens the gender divide and distorts the economic well-being of women and girls is an urgent necessity.

Another area of concern is the effect of poor sanitation on women’s physical and mental health during the time of menstruation, pregnancy, child-rearing, and other illnesses. Their specific hygiene needs are severely unmet during such times, which makes girls and women more vulnerable to health-related risks. These unmet needs often result in the restriction of equal participation of women in society. 

Various studies have indicated a strong association between poor sanitation and adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm birth and low birth rate. However, a lot more needs to be studied on the overall health implications of inadequate sanitation on women and girls. The lack of sanitation facilities in schools and workplaces also has a significant impact on female literacy and labour force participation rates. 

While there is much evidence of the impact of lack of toilets in schools on girls’ participation in education, there is far less evidence gathered on the absence of proper sanitation on working women, especially in the informal sector. 

A priority area of focus in today’s age should be the participation of women in sanitation and hygiene decision-making. The effective use of water and sanitation facilities will be dependent on both men and women participating in the location and technology of such facilities, as well as taking responsibility for their operation and maintenance. There is evidence that empowering women to make sanitation decisions can improve household and community performance outcomes since their influence on sanitation and hygiene behaviour in households is undeniable. 

There is a lot that is yet to be achieved in terms of gender equity in several developing countries and regions of the world. The imminent need to adopt equitable practices into policy at all levels will be crucial to achieving the desired sanitation goals of any country. Furthermore, inequitable practices have cost millions of girls and women a chance at education and work and have severely limited the economic productivity of several developing countries by restricting the participation of women. With better access to safe sanitation facilities, the world will certainly witness improvements in health, educational outcomes, and productivity. 

Essentially, sanitation accounts for a major chunk of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) of any country, which also includes education and work. The sanitation discussion draws our attention to the need to reject the notion that economic growth figures demonstrate a country's overall performance. The need to assess economic development while accounting for equitable distribution and access to resources is pressing. Gender-sensitive approaches to policy discussions on one’s basic human rights, like sanitation, can help us minimize the existing gender gap in society and approach development in its true sense.


Ishi Shrivastava

I am an inspired reader and writer who built this inclination since school days and took part in editorial teams to hone my skills as well as interest. I am also little bit of a good conversationalist.

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