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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


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.


  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.

Profit-led visions of the redevelopment of Dharavi

By ucfuanw, on 22 November 2011

Shops in a commercial lane in Dharavi< Shops in a commercial lane in Dharavi

As part of a happenstance season in which the main players in support of, as well as those opposed to, the looming redevelopment of Dharavi are lecturing in various venues around London, private developer Mukesh Mehta of M.M. Project Consultants recently spoke to an audience of designers, students and academics at the Architectural Association.

Over the past several years, interest surrounding Dharavi’s redevelopment has transcended the boundaries of the directly invested actors, expanding into the public consciousness through national and international news. This is partly because Dharavi embodies “headline” challenges, such as a lack of public services and sanitation infrastructure, informal housing, unpaved roads and a high population density typical of slums. However, it has emerged as a meticulously studied case primarily due to the traits that set it apart, such as the immensely valuable land on which it has developed, high levels of community organisation, and vast economic output of its workforce and networks of production.

While Mehta has been marginalised as the technical consultant to the Government of Maharashtra on the Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP), after his plan was scorchingly critiqued by Dharavi residents, local grassroots groups, NGOs, academics and activists, he continues to pursue and develop his proposals for the future of Dharavi.

< Slide from Mehta’s Presentations at the 2008 Urban Age conference in Mumbai and again at the AA, outlining his ‘HIKES’ vision

Hinging on his construction of the acronym “HIKES” — which stands for health, income, knowledge, environment and socio-cultural capital — Mehta led his argument at the AA by describing how much money the government is set to reap from his proposal without significant new expenditures, as private developers would make the bulk of investment. He then toed the line of Modernist urban planning through images of an unrecognisable tabula rasa development segregating uses and housing typologies, confining slum dwellers to rigid high-rise blocks. The degree of freedom that appointed developers and designers would have to sculpt the lived spaces of Dharavi within the logic of Mehta’s proposal has remained a contentious issue.

< A history of roadblocks to the DRP, from the Hindustan Times (January 22, 2011)

In presentations such as this, Mehta knows that he must sell his scheme to a sceptical audience. Often prioritising fiscal feasibility (profit-generation) over socio-cultural sensitivity and inclusive design, he did himself no favours by recycling what appeared to be a presentation aimed at government officials to students at an architecture school known for its well-established record of innovation at the forefront of the global-design scene.

At presentations like this, it is difficult for many to articulate specific critiques of the DRP due to the purposefully limited scope of information presented. However, the audience was well-versed in the more contentious issues of the project, such as the number of residents that the plan excludes altogether and its lack of contextual sensitivity. Contrary to aligning with the mantra of “slum free cities” in India, the DRP and its neoliberal model of global city development would create new slums by evicting several hundred thousand people from Dharavi. It would only selectively provide upgraded housing while traumatising the livelihoods of not only those evicted, but also those re-housed in buildings that emphasise product over process and prescriptive form over participatory design.

It remains to be seen how the redevelopment will progress on the ground. The stakes are higher than ever, as Dharavi becomes a precedent, setting the tone for slum redevelopment elsewhere in India and around the world. The MSc Building & Urban Design in Development (BUDD) programme at the DPU conducted fieldwork in Dharavi in May 2009, and has since adopted the case as a studio exercise in efforts to navigate a continuously unfolding case and explore critical design while devising alternative and inclusive upgrading proposals.

An earlier version of this article appeared in [polis].

Sheela Patel, founding director of SPARC, will be speaking at the DPU Dialogues in Development session on Friday, 25 November 2011 from 17.30-19.00 in room 101. All are welcome to attend.

Image Credits: Photo of Dharavi lane by Katia Savchuk. Image of “HIKES” slide from Urban Age presentation. Image of newspaper clipping from dharavi.org.