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close this bookSanitation Promotion (SIDA - SDC - WSSCC - WHO, 1998, 292 p.)
close this folderPromotion through better programmes
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View the documentA gender perspective in sanitation projects - Angela Hayden1
View the documentHygiene behaviour-change: lessons from other sectors - Carol Jenkins1
View the documentParticipatory approaches to community empowerment - John Odolon1
View the documentParticipatory monitoring and evaluation of sanitation projects - Jennifer Rietbergen-McCracken1, Sara Wood2 and Mayling Simpson-Hébert3
View the documentFinancing low-income household sanitation facilities through household credit - Robert Varley1

A gender perspective in sanitation projects - Angela Hayden1

1 Independent consultant, Geneva, Switzerland.

What are gender issues in sanitation?

Many sanitation projects have failed because latrines are not properly maintained or simply not used. Why?

Latrines might be sited far from dwellings and women may not like to be seen going to them. Perhaps children are afraid of falling down the hole. People may find the facilities dark and smelly, and would rather defecate in the open air. Men and women might not want to share facilities.

So what gives sanitation projects a chance to succeed?

A sanitation programme is implemented in a community with traditional patterns of living. The programme has to be built on existing practices. For that to happen, traditional patterns - and the motivations behind them - have to be understood. If changes to more healthy practices are to be made, the best people to promote those changes are the ones with a vested interest in seeing the results achieved.

What has all this to do with gender?

Suppose the men of a village construct latrines and are given training in how to maintain them, but then migrate for seasonal employment elsewhere, what happens?

If it is shown that improved sanitation facilities reduce the incidence of disease, women, who are usually the ones who care for sick members of the family, may be highly motivated to keep the facilities clean and functioning properly. But what if training courses are held far from the village and it is not acceptable for women to spend time away from their families to attend courses?

Questions and discussions of this kind are often called “gender issues”. The philosophical basis for considering gender issues is a quest for equity. In traditional societies, decisions are usually made by men. Often, women are expected to be subservient, even if they are able to exert indirect influence.

But sanitation is particularly concerned with gender issues because women are the ones responsible for water and sanitation. If their views and concerns are not expressed and integrated into the programme design, it is unlikely that the programme will earn their commitment. Failure is then almost certain. Evidence shows that when women truly incorporate behaviour change into the pattern of their daily lives, they pass these behaviour changes on to their children, thus increasing a sanitation programme's sustainability.

Focusing on gender means considering the different experiences of men and women, their potential and their limitations, the way they interact, how they share tasks, and how their activities are complementary. More importantly, paying attention to gender is ensuring that women as well as men participate in social and economic development.

Opportunities for men and women to participate in sanitation projects

Men and women should participate actively and equitably in:

- identifying local problems, priorities, and technologies;
- choosing acceptable and affordable sanitation facilities;
- designing and siting of facilities;
- constructing and maintaining facilities (physical or financial contribution);
- training in construction, use, and upkeep;
- educating their own children about proper use and upkeep;
- teaching schoolchildren about proper use and upkeep;
- managing sanitary conditions in the community;
- monitoring sanitary conditions in the community.

Experience shows that one of the main obstacles to the sustainability and success of sanitation projects is that women do not always participate. Women can take part in sanitation projects in many ways, depending on the need, culture and situation. Among these are:

- deciding how women can best be involved in project activities;

- selecting between available alternative sanitation options;

- participating in project indicator establishment and use through monitoring and evaluation activities;

- making detailed design decisions (about type of enclosure, building materials, doors, locks, lighting, siting, etc);

- promoting improvements at household level;

- doing latrine construction work (usually assisting men);

- manufacturing materials to be used in latrine construction (for example, bricks and tiles);

- working as interviewers to collect data;

- providing information as interviewees and focus group participants;

- using the latrines themselves on a regular basis;

- facilitating family use by making paper, soap, and water available;

- supervising children's use of latrines;

- teaching children and motivating other members of the family to use new or improved latrines with proper hygienic habits;

- educating and motivating other local people to use, care for, and maintain latrines properly and adopt proper hygiene habits;

- carrying water for pour-flush latrines and for general latrine cleaning;

- cleaning and general routine care;

- helping to assess the extent to which the project has succeeded.

Using the gender checklist for better projects

Sanitation projects are intended to benefit men, women, and children. If women as well as men are to be involved effectively in improving sanitation facilities, women and men must participate in all stages of the project: design, planning, management, implementation, operation and maintenance, monitoring, evaluation, and follow-up.

A gender checklist is included in the next section. This is intended to help ensure that men and women are involved in all aspects of the programme. Because women are often excluded from programmes, the checklist concentrates on ensuring their participation. Traditions and practices differ, so not all the items will be relevant in every case. Sometimes other factors will have to be taken into account, depending on local circumstances.

Use the checklist to jog your memory. Add or delete items if you want to. The checklist is intended to be of practical use to you in carrying out your work. It will probably have to be translated into the languages used by people working in sanitation programmes. It may be photocopied freely and handed out to anyone interested.

Make sure that the people using the checklist have the right skills, or try to provide appropriate training. If possible, find a specialist in gender issues to help you.

How can you find the answers to the questions in the gender checklist for planning projects?

Getting information about a community's sanitation behaviour and practices is best obtained via (in order of preference):

- participatory activities;
- focus group discussions; and
- interviews.

Here again, you will need people with special training to make certain that the participatory activities, focus groups or interviews produce valid and useful results. Ask a gender issues specialist to help you.

Participatory activities

These encourage individuals to participate in a group process. They are designed for planning at community level and encourage everyone to participate, irrespective of age, sex, social class or educational background. Participatory methods are particularly useful in encouraging the participation of women who, in some cultures, may be reluctant to express their views.

If possible, find someone who knows about participatory methods to help collect the information you need. Otherwise, you can find out about participatory methods by reading Tools for community participation: a manual for training trainers in participatory techniques by Lyra Srinivasan and Gender issues sourcebook for water and sanitation projects by Wendy Wakeman.

Focus groups

These are group discussions that gather together people from similar backgrounds or with similar experience to discuss specific topics. The group is guided by a moderator (or facilitator) who introduces the topics for discussion and helps to foster a lively and free discussion among the group members. An observer or note-taker records the main points mentioned in the discussion.

For focus groups to produce useful information, it is important to have a well-trained moderator and to select participants carefully. If you want to use focus groups as a way of gathering information, try to find an expert to help you.2

2 For more about focus groups, see The focus group manual by Susan Dawson, Lenore Manderson and Veronica L. Tallo, Methods for social research. In: Tropical diseases No. 1, social and economic research. UNDP/World Bank/WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, Geneva, 1992 (unpublished document TDR/SER/MSR/92.1).


These are a good way of gathering information, so long as the people being interviewed feel free to express their true opinions and as long as they are selected at random. Many factors may inhibit women interviewees, making them reluctant to say what they really think. For example, a woman may feel uncomfortable if she has to answer questions in front of her husband or mother-in-law. Try to use trained interviewers (women's organizations may be of help here).

Some points to watch when interviewing women are:

· Employ women interviewers.

· Interview women in groups where possible, preferably where they gather for some other activity.

· Interview women separately from their husbands, if possible.

· Consider age, social class, and cultural match to make sure that the interviewer will be understood and trusted.

· Be aware that young wives may not be able to express themselves freely in the presence of their mothers-in-law, mothers, or any person with power over them.

· Make certain that you interview people from each of the groups within the community. Programme planners should find out from several different sources what groups exist in the community.

· Avoid recruiting interviewers from only the higher levels of society.

· Interviewers need to have some legitimacy, so consider training as an interviewer a respected person from within the community or from a similar background to the persons being interviewed.

· Appoint more than one interviewer, so that they can support each other, particularly when interviewing mixed groups.

References consulted

Hannan-Andersson C. Ways of involving women in water projects. Waterlines, July 1985, 4(1):28-31.

Perrett HE. Involving women in sanitation projects. Washington, DC, Technology Advisory Group (TAG), United Nations Development Programme (World Bank, Washington, DC), 1985 (TAG Discussion Paper No. 3).

Wakeman W. Gender issues sourcebook for water and sanitation projects. Washington, DC, UNDP-World Bank Water and Sanitation Program/PROWWESS (World Bank, Washington, DC), January 1995.

Wakeman W et al. Sourcebook for gender issues at the policy level in the water and sanitation sector. Washington, DC, UNDP-World Bank Water and Sanitation Program, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, October 1996.