In an interview for World Toilet Day, Léo Heller, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, gives his views on the inequalities of access between women and men.

1. How does gender inequality in access to water and sanitation play out in daily life?

Inequalities between men and women are pervasive in access to water and sanitation and are often translated into unequal opportunities and grave human rights violations. This situation affects men and women unequally for various reasons. In many countries, because of their traditional domestic roles and responsibilities, women are most affected when water and sanitation are not properly available; they often spend several hours a day collecting water for their family’s needs and are at personal risk using a distant toilet.

Soap and clean water for personal hygiene are of particular importance during menstruation. Many women and girls risk their health using unhygienic sanitary methods, as other methods are unaffordable or unavailable. Women fear violence by men in public toilets and open defecation sites, and along the routes leading to both. To avoid this, women and girls avoid drinking, and hold back the urge to go to the toilet for long periods of time, risking dehydration, bladder and kidney infections, and other health impacts. There is often a lack of adequate facilities in schools, hospitals, public spaces and workplaces. Throughout their lives, such situations translate into unequal opportunities and play a major role in keeping women and girls on the margins of society.

2. How significant is the lack of adequate toilets at the workplace – and what does this actually mean for women?

Women and girls risk their health or miss out on workdays when adequate sanitation and menstrual hygiene management facilities are absent from the workplace. For example, 60 per cent of all women working in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia work in the agriculture sector and their workplace often does not include facilities that allow them to safely go to the toilet or manage their periods. Women working in public spaces, such as markets, often have no access to facilities altogether. In the manufacturing industry and in dense urban areas, women and girls sometimes work in overcrowded spaces where privacy is limited and sanitation facilities are inadequate. This not only violates their rights to water and sanitation, but also their rights to health, to work and to living in dignity. 

3. What should be done to change this?

States have certain responsibilities towards their citizens and clear human rights obligations under international law. In the case of workplaces, we need to see women involved in the development of employment codes and standards that explicitly require the inclusion of adequate sanitation facilities. These codes must be promoted and enforced, and must serve to hold businesses and governments to account. Private companies and employers also have a responsibility to take action, and trades unions have the potential to encourage good practices and support workers’ rights in this area.

Interested to learn more about the human rights to water and sanitation and gender equality? Read the Special Rapporteur’s report here.

More reports on the human rights to water and sanitation can be found here.

Photo credit: Sustainable sanitation via / CC BY