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    ‘Women’ and water inequality: why we need to look deeper into ‘gender’ to overcome water inequality

    By Rosa M Sulley, on 27 July 2017

    “This post was originally published on the London International Development Centre (LIDC) blog here, written by DPU student Rosa Sulley during her communications internship at LIDC”.

     

    The global water crisis is happening right now. WaterAid states that “a lack of safe water, proper toilets and good hygiene affects women and girls most” making water poverty undoubtedly a gender issue. However, if we are going to properly understand and account for all experiences of water poverty, we need to change the way we think about gender, women, and water.

    The global water crisis is happening right now. WaterAid states that “a lack of safe water, proper toilets and good hygiene affects women and girls most” making water poverty undoubtedly a gender issue. However, if we are going to properly understand and account for all experiences of water poverty, we need to change the way we think about gender, women, and water.

    Gender and Development Approaches to Water Poverty

    The gendered nature of water poverty was brought to the world’s attention by feminist critiques of gender inequality in development and access to natural resources. Through research, academia, and activism on gender inequality, the burden on women and girls of collecting water and carrying out domestic water tasks has become well-known, contributing to the continued promotion of ‘Gender and Development’ (GAD) approaches in international policy.

    Borne out of critiques of ‘Women in Development’ (WID), which was the first attempt to integrate women into the international development agenda, GAD emerged in the late 1980s and has gained significant attention in academic research, development practice, and policy at all scales. It brought a new focus on the socially constructed differences between men and women to global development policy and discourse, and encouraged an analysis of gender roles and gender relations. In relation to water, GAD approaches therefore privileged investigation into how gender roles and relations influence uneven access to and control over water resources. Much of the work in the water sector is informed by this approach, meaning water programmes and initiatives, especially in the Global South, have increasingly had a gender focus.

    However, there are many feminist authors who challenge the practical application of GAD approaches. Although GAD intended to move away from a focus just on women, in practice, ‘gender’ is still commonly synonymised with ‘women’ in policy and practice. As a result, gender approaches and gender mainstreaming in water programmes often slip back into single perspectives. Within gender mainstreaming, this focus on women also often results in the homogenisation of ‘women’ as a single category, suggesting that all who fall under that category experience water inequality in the same way.

    I want to stress here that in writing this article I am no way trying to reduce or overlook the evident gender inequality and water struggles which many women and girls experience in their daily lives around the world. Rather, highlight the problems with the current way gender is commonly conceptualised in water projects; where generalised statements like ‘poor women are more impacted’ are common. Such statements perpetuate global narratives of a homogenous, vulnerable Global South woman suffering from water poverty, and render differing experiences of water inequality invisible. For example, images of water poverty are often of non-white women struggling to carry and collect water, as shown below.

    women carrying water

    However, it would be far too simplistic to say that these two women experience water inequality in the same way just because they are both women. What about other factors such as their age, where they live, their class? And how do all of these interconnect through different social relations? Nonetheless, inaccurate assumptions that all women suffer equally, and can therefore be empowered equally through targeted ‘gendered’ interventions, guide many water programmes.

    The dominance of such simplified narratives is having negative consequences. Wider social relations can undermine programmes directed at women, and there are a number of examples of water interventions which actually resulted in further marginalisation due to a limited understanding of these other social factors and relations.

    The Importance of Other Social Relations

    The notion that gender constitutes something far more complex than simply ‘male’ or ‘female’ has gained significant ground in academic work. A feminist theory known as intersectionality has been at the forefront of such thinking, arguing that gender always intersects with other social identities and relations, including race, caste, class, age, ethnicity, sexuality, for example. Intersectionality suggests that it is all of these different identities and relations and how they come together in different ways which is important for determining how someone experiences (water) inequality and poverty. 

    Allen and Hofmann explain this clearly in their recent book chapter on urban water and sanitation poverty in Lima and Dar es Salaam. They use intersectional analysis to show how women and men go through dynamic trajectories in and out of water poverty due to factors such as whether they are renters or landowners and relations with other people in the community. For example, they follow the life of one entrepreneurial woman who lives in her family house and sells drinking water in reused plastic bottles that she fills with water from the pushcart vendors. She is able to sell water because she is well known in the community, giving her extra income to secure access to water for herself. Whereas another woman, also with her own business, is constrained by her position as a renter. Her landlord keeps raising rents and, despite her business, she struggles to find the money to meet the basic water needs of her family.

    Understanding water poverty in this way and further exploring how water inequality is differentially experienced is extremely important. It not only sheds light on how micro-politics shape differing levels of empowerment and disempowerment, but also links such dynamics to broader structural issues through multi-scalar investigation. This helps to explain at multiple levels why and how some women can escape water poverty water whilst others cannot. Too much of a practical focus on ‘women’ as a homogenised, fixed, singular category clearly hides other significant factors through which water poverty is embedded and comes to be produced and experienced.

    Therefore, this could, and should, have meaningful implications for policy and water practices for better targeted interventions. Although intersectionality is a well-known theory, currently there is little literature and even less policy focus on intersectional water poverty, or even in relation to socio-ecological inequality in the Global South more widely. The hope is that with the gradual increase in academic publications which attend to complex ideas of gender and social difference in relation to water, there will be a shift towards those who experience multi-layered water inequalities right now. We have begun to change the way we think about gender, women, and water, but now we need to question how we approach and overcome water inequalities in practice.  


    References

    UNICEF/WHO (2015) https://www.wssinfo.org/fileadmin/user_upload/resources/JMP-Update-repor…

    Photo credit for the image of two women carrying water: https://www.flickr.com/photos/adjourned/3069327644 


    Rosa is an LIDC intern and a Master’s student of Environment and Sustainable Development at the Development Planning Unit, UCL. She is interested in water poverty and policy, gender, and development in urban contexts.

    Gender and sanitation: the hidden issue of gender-based violence

    By Christopher Yap, on 11 March 2015

    Trucks depositing liquid waste operate on the edge of the Kombo Ward in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Image: Adriana Allen

    Trucks depositing liquid waste operate on the edge of the Vingunguti settlement in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Image: Adriana Allen

    Access to safe, dignified and appropriate toilets and sanitation facilities is a basic right for women, men, boys and girls worldwide. However an estimated 2.5 billion people still do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities globally. This issue is most prevalent in the Global South, and in urban contexts a lack of appropriate sanitation facilities is a particular, commonplace condition of informal and unplanned settlements.

    Sanitation in informal settlements

    Lack of access to appropriate sanitation facilities is closely related to the complex reality of insecure living conditions facing informal urban inhabitants. Those living in ‘slums’ are often denied access to formal infrastructure due to their insecure tenure and livelihoods, and marginalised status within the city.

    As a result, these citizens are forced to develop their own infrastructures for toilets and sanitation. Each solution, including communal, privately funded facilities, and pit latrines, comes with its own assemblage of risk, be it health or hygiene-related, environmental or social, or a combination of these.

    The vast majority of toilets and sanitation facilities in informal settlements exist not in private homes, but in public spaces. The nature and degree of risk associated with these spaces reflects the broader social relations of power in the community. Central to this inequitable distribution of risk is the issue of gender inequality.

    Image: Adriana Allen

    Image: Adriana Allen

    Gendered differences in use of public space

    In many patriarchal societies, a public/private space dichotomy exists by which women’s access to public space is more restricted than men’s. Women’s mobility is restricted due to both time constraints associated with reproductive roles as well as ‘symbolic dimensions surrounding the ‘forbidden’ and ‘permitted’ use of spaces governed by patriarchal power relations and norms of female propriety.’ [1]

    Gender-based violence is an expression of these unequal gender relations. It exists in a variety of forms, from physical abuse, assault and rape, to verbal insults and psychological trauma.

    In this sense it might be understood as a response to perceived infractions of gendered ideologies (such as women moving freely in public spaces or earning more in a household than men). While the vast majority of gender-based violence is perpetrated by men against women, men and boys can also be victims. In Mumbai, for example, the practice of ‘eve-teasing’ is commonplace, with men targeting women with obscenities and in some instances throwing stones.

    Women adapt to avoid risks – but where does the problem lie?

    In informal settlements, women are often at greater risk of gender-based violence due to the lack of effective policing, and lack of access to formal recourse mechanisms, including the justice system itself. In many cases the onus is on women to alter their behaviour in order to avoid risk, rather than the perpetrators.

    For example: WaterAid found that 94% of women they surveyed in Bhopal, India faced violence and harassment when going to defecate, and a third had been physically assaulted [2]. Communal toilets are often built near the peripheries of settlements, meaning that women are more vulnerable to assault, particularly at night and in areas with little or no public lighting.

    The facilities themselves can be poorly maintained, unhygienic and lack privacy for women. These conditions drive the practice of open defecation in settlements, which increases the health risks to the community and further exposes women to violence amongst other risks.

    The association between gender-based violence and toilet and sanitation facilities in informal settlements is only one manifestation of citywide injustices relating to gender, class, caste, and identity amongst others. Lack of access to adequate toilet and sanitation services can lead to an increased vulnerability to gender based violence in different forms.

    Vingunguti in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Image: Pascale Hofmann

    Vingunguti in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Image: Pascale Hofmann

    A right to safe and secure sanitation

    Focusing on this issue makes it possible to identify ways of improving the everyday safety and well-being of women in informal settlements through better design and management of facilities. It also has the potential to confront the gendered ideologies driving the reproduction of risk and violence in informal settlements.

    We must grasp the urgency of taking action to combat the disproportionately hostile experiences facing many women when accessing sanitation, particularly in informal settlements.

    The realisation of the right to sanitation is a necessary but insufficient step towards addressing gendered inequalities, not least the elimination of violence against women. But it is only by recognising the daily challenges facing women around the world that we can begin to address them.

     

    Indefensible Space: Gender based violence and sanitation in informal settlements

    is a Project implemented by the DPU and the Institute of Child Health, UCL, and SNEHA, Mumbai and supported by the Institute for Global Health/UCL Grand Challenges.

    On Tuesday 24th March practitioners and academics will host a half day Colloquium exploring the issues relating to gender-based violence facing women in slums; there will be a first London screening of a participatory film produced with slum communities in Dharavi, Mumbai as part of the Project. Read more about the project and book your place in the audience today.


    Notes:

    1. Chant, S. and McIlwaine, C. (2013). “Gender, Urban Development and the Politics of Space”, 4 June 2013.
    2. WaterAid and National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (2013). Research on the DFID-supported IPAP programme in India in five states (unpublished).

    Chris Yap is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Urban Development Planning. He has worked with a number of organisations including the International Institute of Environment and Development, London International Development Centre, Pastoral and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa, and Oxfam America on topics including the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, communal and collective land tenure options for low income groups, participatory budgeting in a post-disaster context, community led-mapping and urban agriculture.

    Multiple Dimensions of Risk in Lima

    By Christopher Yap, on 4 May 2014

    Every year students from MSc Environment and Sustainable Development at the Development Planning Unit embark on a fieldtrip to a country in the global South. Supported by prior research, the fieldwork synthesises hands-on experience with the skills, concepts, and theories of environmental justice for development.

    This year the research aims to understand the relations between water, risk and urban development in Lima, Peru, and how environmental injustices are produced and can be addressed, by exploring scenarios and strategies embedded in the wider socio-political, economic and ecological processes, with the potential for transformative change.

    Four case studies: Cantagallo, Barrios Altos, Jose Carlos Mariátegui and Huaycán were chosen with our local partners and offer unique readings of Lima.

    The first days of fieldwork have started to reveal the complex structural conditions producing and reproducing social-spatial inequalities and precarious living conditions for citizens of Barrios Altos and Cantagallo in the centre of Lima.

    A vacant plot in Cantagallo where the former residents accepted LAMSAC's offer of money to vacate the site immediately (c) Chris Yap

    A vacant plot in Cantagallo where the former residents accepted LAMSAC’s offer of money to vacate the site immediately (c) Chris Yap

    In Cantagallo, multiple groups, such as the indigenous Shipibo community, live in a high density settlement, directly on top of a former city dump-site. The entire district is marked for regeneration, and the community is engaged in long negotiations with the municipal authorities over their relocation. However the private company, LAMSAC, working in partnership with the municipality to manage the infrastructure megaproject, Via Parque Rimac, is also offering money to families to vacate their plots immediately. Some members of the community have already left their improvised properties, which were immediately demolished and the plots fenced off, to prevent others from taking their place.

    For every family that vacates their plot during talks with the municipal authorities, the negotiating position of the remaining families is weakened. Those families that remain face a multitude of socio-environmental risks; unhygienic living conditions and tenure insecurity the most apparent.

    In Barrios Altos, only a few hundred metres away from Cantagallo, residents face a different set of challenges and risks. The historic centre of Lima is characterised by its grand, dilapidated buildings. The current residents of the quintas – colonial-era buildings some of which have lived in the area for generations and others that are new to the district, face daily risks from unstable, unsafe structures, land trafficking and forced displacement.

     

    Buildings at risk of collapse in Barrios Altos (c) Chris Yap

    Buildings at risk of collapse in Barrios Altos (c) Chris Yap

    The central location and cultural significance of the district and the quintas has attracted multiple actors with competing intentions for the area’s regeneration. Private sector developers and municipal agencies, such as ProLima, are being pushed to find new solutions for urban regeneration.

    The displacement or relocation of residents from the grand buildings is followed by the barricading of the room or building, just as the vacant plots are fenced off across the river in Cantagallo.

    A bricked-up former residence in Barrios Altos (c) Chris Yap

    A bricked-up former residence in Barrios Altos (c) Chris Yap

    Meanwhile, many local private developers are building illegally, without permits, behind the UNESCO-protected facades of the quintas. But whilst the municipal authorities are aware of the problem, they lack the capacity to prevent the developments.

    Of greater concern are the cases where private developers have forcibly evicted tenants, or cut water pipes to hasten the collapse of the already fragile buildings in order to acquire the land for development.

    The complex reality generated by multiple actors with different interests, capacities, resources and priorities, and multi dimensional realities of risk, are manifested differently in each of the two sites, yet the residents face comparable challenges. Over the next two weeks, students will explore the nature of risk in each of the sites, and the strategies that residents and other stakeholders are adopting to challenge inequitable urban development.

    A quinta where the water pipes were illegally cut, forcing the residents to leave and causing the structure to collapse. (c)  Chris Yap

    A quinta where the water pipes were illegally cut, forcing the residents to leave and causing the structure to collapse. (c) Chris Yap