Posted October 5th 2010 at 4:21 pm by
in Gender and Water

A Gender Approach to Water and Sanitation Infrastructure Design

GenderWaterEcuador2_Small Ecuadorian girl sitting on water gallons. Source: UN-Habitat / Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

In Ecuador, as in most developing countries, professionals design the water and sanitation infrastructure in poor areas without considering the social context and without any participation from the future users.  As many studies assert, this is the main reason why water and sanitation systems so often collapse or are abandoned soon after they are constructed. Women and children are affected the worst by these kinds of failures, as they are the ones who need these services the most. According to numerous studies from the UN, there is a direct link between inadequate water sanitation services and burdening health problems, including death, especially for children under five years old.

Water and sanitation investments in poor areas are aimed at improving the quality of life in general, and obviously health in particular. In order to actually do this, we need to understand the way professionals define and relate to the people to whom water and sanitation infrastructure is meant to serve. Are these people a homogeneous mass of individuals with homogeneous needs? Or, is it a heterogeneous mix of genders, ages, cultures that have different needs?

The relation between professionals and civil society is generally limited to spuriously neutral, often inaccurate or insufficient statistics. Decisions are made behind doors in the name of technical objectivity and pretentiously comprehensive (most often instinctive and biased) understanding of the needs of men, women and children and their social structure and dynamics. When professionals actually engage with the users, the relationship between professionals and civil society is direct, political and complex, which makes the design process somehow uncertain. This second option is less easy, but necessary, and obliges professionals to be fairly attentive to the design process, accepting the possibility of changing initially planned, expected results and actions. This second option makes planning slower, as it adds new tools and stages to the statistics and techniques that are traditionally used in the first option.

Ecuadorian women fetching some water. Source: Texaco Ecuador.

In the Watsan Program that I am currently involved with, we have chosen the second option, which makes it imperative that gender is adequately mainstreamed in the design process. There are two main reasons for this: first, women are typically the ones taking care of the family’s health, fetching water, cooking, cleaning and washing; second, women suffer the most when water and sanitation services are deficient.  When this happens, women are typically plagued by a variety of health problems, as well as undermined dignity and security. By mainstreaming gender, we are giving attention to differentiated needs and stakes of men, women and children, and we are entering into a close relationship with the future users of the infrastructure. How are we mainstreaming gender in the design process? The process has three stages: gathering information, diagnosis, and design.

Gathering information: The first step is to understand the needs, social dynamics, water culture and sanitation habits, which differ for men and women. This means that qualitative and quantitative surveys seek to generate gender disaggregated data. Ideally, it should be women from the community, after due training, who gather information about the female community’s needs and own it.  This can become a key tool of empowerment.

Diagnosis: First, the professionals analyze the gathered information, and then it is analyzed together with the community, stimulating rich debates, first with women alone, finally with men and women together. Meeting women and men separately is a way of ensuring that women’s point of view is not hidden by the men’s point of view. In Ecuador and many other contexts, women fear the repercussions (which can sometimes be violent) of disagreeing with their husbands and other men in the community.

Design: In order for a design to be adequate, it must respond directly to the needs of women and children. The participation process is what ensures this responsiveness. The professional has the role of advising women and men on the different technical options they have, debating issues of affordability of operation and maintenance costs, cultural acceptance, water saving, avoiding wastewater pollution, service and tariff administration, etc. Once again, the professional has to meet women first, separately from men. Once the women’s choices are clear, the whole community is gathered in order to reach a collective decision, a situation that is difficult to manage but that requires tools and arguments that ensure that women’s choices prevail through the meeting. Here, it is imperative to understand the gender power relations in the community.

The remaining steps of the project cycle, construction, monitoring, operation and maintenance, and evaluation, are also very important in gender terms. But they deserve a whole text apart.

The best example of a gender oriented water and sanitation programme is the Community-designed, built and managed toilet blocks in Indian cities, by the alliance of an NGO, a women collective and a slum dwellers federation.

Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca is a Spanish urban planner, trained in Barcelona’s School of Architecture and London’s Development Planning Unit. He has work experience in the private, public, academic and NGO sector in Barcelona, Hanoi, Ghana and several cities in India, and he is currently working for UN-HABITAT in Quito, Ecuador, in a governance of the water and sanitation sector programme.

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