22 March 2017
In a sample of 54 low-income countries, 38 per cent of healthcare facilities lacked a clean water supply, and almost one-in-five lacked improved sanitation facilities.
Above: In a sample of 54 low-income countries, 38 per cent of healthcare facilities lacked a clean water supply, and almost one-in-five lacked improved sanitation facilities.

Two weeks ago the world celebrated International Women’s Day and today (22 March) is World Water Day. While these two international days of action are coincidently celebrated just two weeks apart, the connection between them is stark and very much on the global development agenda.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) and SDG 6 (Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all) sit side by side, and for good reason.

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) underpins and is a pre-requisite for the health and wellbeing of all people, including women and girls.

Women and girls and gender-discriminated people still endure the burden of inadequate WASH facilities in health care centres, in schools, in public spaces and in their own homes.

As Léo Heller reported to the UN General Assembly in 2016: “The lack of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities that meet women and girls’ needs can be largely attributed to the absence of women’s participation in decision-making and planning.”

And yet, the economic benefits of providing safely managed and accessible WASH services to all those who currently do not have them would be three to six times greater than the costs.

A lack of safe and private toilet facilities puts women and gender-discriminated peoples in danger.

Their health and livelihoods are compromised, and their ability to attend school or work is undermined – especially during menstruation.  

Additional challenges arise when women fall pregnant and have children, as inadequate WASH increases the risk of maternal, neonatal and childhood illness and death. 

In a sample of 54 low-income countries, 38 per cent of healthcare facilities lacked a clean water supply, and almost one-in-five lacked improved sanitation facilities.

Good nutrition is dependent on safely managed WASH facilities.

The World Health Organization estimates that 50 per cent of undernutrition (a major form of malnutrition) is associated with infections caused by unsafe water, poor sanitation and unhygienic practices, including not washing hands with soap. Health, economic development and environmental protection is dependent on safely managed water and sanitation.

Australia’s contribution

Australia is positioning itself as a global leader in connecting gender equality outcomes with WASH – and the Australian NGO sector working in this space is active and works collaboratively with governments around the world to achieve these dual and mutually reinforcing aims.

The Australian Aid program supports WASH programs with an explicit focus on gender equality, and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has recognised the importance of WASH, women and girls for genuine development in our region.

The Australian Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Reference Group is a community of practice of dedicated non-government organisations and research institutions who are working together to enhance Australian-based sanitation and water initiatives overseas.

Its members are responsible for improving WASH services for millions of people in our region.

Research for improved WASH

Australian research organisations are playing a significant role in supporting the uptake of evidence-based practice in the WASH sector.

For example, the Institute for Sustainable Futures – University of Technology (ISF-UTS) partnered with Plan International Australia to examine the strategic gender outcomes of the Gender and WASH Monitoring Tool (GWMT) that Plan developed and use in their programming.

The research explored the extent to which applying the tool contributed to changed gender relations when used as part of regular WASH project monitoring activities.

The International Water Centre has recently launched outputs from its ‘Fostering WaSH marketing exchanges in informal Melanesian settlements’ initiative conducted in collaboration with Live and Learn.

This project explored different WASH marketing systems suited to local demand and conditions and the functions and roles of the enabling environment actors, both within and outside communities.

The Australian Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is one of 11 sitting heads-of-state and government making up the High Level Panel on Water created by the United Nations in 2016 to ‘champion a comprehensive, inclusive and collaborative way of developing and managing water resources, and improving water and sanitation related services’.

Last September, the Prime Minister announced in New York that Australia was launching an additional $100 million to provide water and sanitation through a new ‘Water for Women’ initiative.

At the same time, the Australian Water Partnership and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade commissioned a report (co-written by ISF-UTS and WaterAid) on how to integrate gender equality outcomes into the High Level Panel on Water Action Plan which was submitted to the Panel during meetings in Budapest in late 2016.  

This report, 'Gender and SDG6: The Critical Connection' looks at how gender inequalities are necessary to address in all dimensions of WASH and the governance of water resources, calling on all governments to pay special attention to including gender discriminated peoples in planning and delivery of water, sanitation and hygiene programs.

[Authors Melita Grant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, Australian University of Technology Sydney; The Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Reference Group (which includes UQ/GCI); World Vision Australia; WaterAid; Plan Australia; International Water Centre; Engineers Without Borders; et al.] Edited for publication on this site by GCI Communications, 22 March 2017

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