Inclusive WASH needed for empowering women globally

As I write this blog from my house in London, I reflect on the fact that here we are fortunate to receive 24/7 access to running water and safe sanitation. This basic, yet vital, service allows women, girls, and those who menstruate, to manage their monthly menstruation with dignity. Yet for tens of millions globally, this scenario is far from reality.

In this regard, the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic and International Women’s Day (8 March) provide an opportunity to focus on the responsibility of water professionals on menstrual hygiene management (MHM).

Access to adequate, inclusive, and sustainable sanitation services is one of the biggest issues facing the water sector and society as a whole. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.2 highlights the need to pay ‘special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations’ with regards to access to clean water and sanitation.

Periods are a natural process – every single day, approximately 300 million people are on their periods. Yet, one in three are unable to manage it safely and with dignity due to a lack of toilets, sanitary products and/or hygiene services.  

MHM challenges are far greater in low and middle-income countries, and they severely affect women’s health, education, and their participation in society. For example, UNICEF estimates that one in 10 girls in Africa miss school because of their periods each year.

In many countries, something as simple as a lack of access to safe bathrooms is a crucial issue, not just for education but for safety and wellbeing. UNESCO reports: “Studies from South Africa and elsewhere have documented the risks of sexual violence and harassment in latrines, and the importance of including schoolgirls in the planning of latrine location and structures within schools. Toilet facilities must also have doors and locks inside, to ensure girls can privately and safely manage their menses.”

Meanwhile, the environmental impact of inadequate disposal facilities and single-use plastic sanitary products affect high, middle and low-income countries, although to varying extents. Therefore, the need for sustainable and affordable sanitary products and solutions for MHM is of global concern.

Leaps and bounds are being made with regards to sustainable sanitary products, from menstrual cups to re-useable pads and underwear. There is an urgent need for adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities with access to clean running water that allow the uptake of these sustainable and reusable products. Currently, using re-useable sanitary products (such as menstrual cups) in low and middle-income countries can be extremely challenging or near impossible in some cases. Menstrual cups need to be sterilised in clean boiling water once per period and should be washed with running tap water at each change.

Through capacity development programmes, professionals from the water, education, and development sectors can be encouraged to collaborate – this can accelerate solutions and deliver innovative and inclusive sanitation facilities. In turn, this can help to prevent infection, enhance hygiene, reduce stigma, and incentivise girls to attend schools more often, and therefore will lead to a more equitable society.

Water and sanitation professionals play a vital role by working tirelessly towards achieving SDG 6, including SDG 6.2 through WASH projects. WASH projects provide a unique first step for MHM improvements as they focus on the hardware (such as planning and designing facilities and products) and software (education and attitudes). They also provide opportunities for engaging with institutional actors and policy-makers, which can create a strong enabling environment for change towards a more inclusive and equitable society.

With MHM not only being a sanitation issue but a gender equality issue, the impact made by water and sanitation professionals can be extremely far reaching, helping to achieve other SDGs in the process.

On International Women’s Day 2021, we urge all water professionals to choose to challenge standards, and think inclusively. We need to work together to develop solutions that empower women globally through inclusive access to clean water and sanitation.

#ChooseToChallenge #IWD2021


As part of her role as a Leadership Engagement Officer at IWA, Laura is also the Project Officer for IWA’s Regulating for Citywide Inclusive Sanitation (R-CWIS) initiative which aims at identifying the needs, opportunities, and tools for action to support and inspire regulators in their contribution to achieving citywide inclusive sanitation in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.

When it comes to achieving adequate and inclusive sanitation, the concept of Citywide Inclusive Sanitation (CWIS) is increasingly used. This refers to a public service approach to planning and implementing urban sanitation systems to achieve SDG 6. By collaborating with both policy-makers and service providers – providing incentives, and helping to identify gaps in data and service-levels – regulators and those with supervisory functions over the provision of water and sanitation services are key drivers for change in achieving universal access to clean water and sanitation for all.

Join the Regulating for CWIS Initiative IWA Connect group here where you can see updates and share insights, case studies and lessons learnt on regulating for CWIS.