It’s time we unveil the hidden everyday experiences
By Amanda Hoang, on 14 March 2023
This blog was written as part of the Learning Alliance between the OVERDUE project and the DPU’s MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development. Amanda is a recent graduate of this MSc programme (2021/22), and her reflections on gendered sanitation infrastructures were produced in a module that tackles issues of environment and sustainable development in practice.
Before this module, I never fully understood what sanitation meant. To my assumption, sanitation only reached to the extent of water and hygiene with little focus on toilets, its infrastructure, and the stories behind its use. But perhaps this disinterest stemmed from my own privileges of living in a city where sanitation facilities meet my own needs: running water, piped sewerage, bins for sanitary pads, division of women/men toilets and decently maintained facilities.
In that very first lecture however, introducing the topic, Adriana Allen said that sanitation was both “visible yet invisible” at the same time. That statement was my personal entry point into sanitation – and as Emmanuel Osuteye said in the Learning Alliance retreat, it was my “hook” into why it is a critical entry point into unlocking just urban development.
Toilet facilities unlock the hidden everyday stories of injustice
It made me flashback to when I was based in peri-urban Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2019. Whilst I was working in a local school, I saw a young female student openly defecating behind the school’s toilet facilities. I wondered why there were practices of open defecation despite there being toilet facilities available just in front of her. After a conversation with female students, it was said that the school toilet facilities were just such poor quality, that students did not end up using them. The school toilets were created by an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) but since its creation, they played no further role. There was no running water, sanitary bins and toilets were not maintained, which resulted in further decline in the facility’s quality (Figure 1). For female students who were menstruating, they would skip an entire week of classes as the facilities were not catered for their menstrual needs. Similarly, outside of the school setting, women who menstruated were often subjected to banishment from the kitchen and places of worship due to passed down beliefs of impurity (Thapa and Aro, 2021).
With that conversation, I left Nepal with more questions than answers. Despite the provision of toilet facilities in schools, what was it about those toilets that discouraged female students from using them? There is a juxtaposition where toilets are visibly everywhere but everyday experiences and realities around these toilet practices, such as menstruation and taboos, continue to be invisible and under-researched. These invisible experiences allow us to understand the injustices in urban development and also provide an opportunity to advance just development. Sanitation is the artery of the city, playing a vital role in urban life, intersecting with the urban environment, health, water and more. Inequitable sanitation in the city therefore ultimately reflects the wider injustices in the city such as inequitable distribution of resources, and a lack of intersectional representation and recognition in governance (Rusca et al., 2018).
Sanitation also allows us to adopt a feminist political ecology (FPE) lens, paying particular attention to the ‘everyday’ and emotional narratives that are not usually recognised in policy and planning (Clement et al., 2019; Lancione and McFarlane, 2016). FPE enables us to understand how power relations are deeply gendered and how they marginalise groups not just related to gender but to caste, class, race, disabilities. As such, these invisible everyday realities are reflective of the inequalities in the city and therefore demonstrate how “spaces of exclusion” are created, thus leading to further injustice in the production of urban spaces (Bhakta et al., 2019).
Urban African parallels and unveiling wider institutional issues
Drawing parallels from the insightful work co-produced with OVERDUE partners as part of the Learning Alliance, from the toilet research in Beira, Bukavu and Freetown and across continents in the Nepali context, I see and hear stories of everyday injustices. These stories reiterate that intersectional sanitation realities – of women, the disabled, young, and elderly – remain invisible, perpetuating the social stigma and taboos around cleanliness, manifesting in lack of locks, doors, and sanitary bins for women (Figure 2), marginalising and creating greater urban inequalities. Yet as noted by Bhakta et al., (2019), these hidden sanitation realities are “characterised by unjust institutional practices” and thus expose unequal governance structures which dictate urban development such as in policy or staff development (pp.18).
Whilst these everyday stories have been powerful in revealing some of the sanitation injustices, I questioned how we could recognise these voices in a system that values quantitative data as facts. It was the use of Levy’s (1996) ‘Web of Institutionalisation’ whilst learning in the African city context that made me realise how these everyday stories of sanitation injustices can be turned into advancing just urban development. Ultimately, the Web shows how processes within institutions like local governments, can play an active role in advancing just urban development through the inclusion of women and intersectional voices in planning (Figure 3). During the Learning Alliance retreat in the UK in May 2022, Kavita Wankhade’s presentation on the Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation Support Programme (TNUSSP) mentioned the role of civil servants being stuck in a system, where bureaucracy is dictated by wider processes but nonetheless still plays a role in representing the voices on the ground. As a civil servant working in procurement, I always assumed that I played only a minor role in local government. Kavita’s comment made me reflect on my own position in vocalising the hidden voices in sanitation. Whether that would be through advocating for gender-sensitive needs in procurement contracts (procedures), the role that we play in vocalising these hidden realities is an important step in a new governance structure which enables equal representation and just development (Levy, 1996).
Sanitation’s role in advancing just urban development
To summarise, sanitation is an entry point to ensure greater equity in the city. These past months have made me reflect that sanitation is more than just water provision and cleanliness but encompasses a multitude of components like public toilets and the vital role of women as sanitation workers. Within these, it is these sanitation experiences that perpetuate injustices that continue to be hidden. By acknowledging the realities within the sanitation conversation, we also start tracing opportunities within the institutional web to change fundamental processes that impact urban development as well as awaken our own personal agency. By improving sanitation, we can therefore begin to advance genuine just urban development that is for women, men, children, elderly, disabled and for all.
For more information on the OVERDUE / MSc ESD Learning Alliance, please visit https://www.esdlearningalliance.net
Bhakta, A., Fisher, J., and Reed, B. (2019) Unveiling hidden knowledge: discovering the hygiene needs of perimenopausal women, International Development Planning Review, 41(2), pp.149-171.
Clement, F., Harcourt, W.J., Joshi, D., and Sato, C. (2019) Feminist political ecologies of the commons and communing, International Journal of the Commons, 13(1), pp.1-15
Lancione, M., and McFarlane, C. (2016) Life at the urban margins: Sanitation infra-making and the potential of experimental comparison, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 48(12), pp.2402-2421.
Levy, C. (1996) The process of institutionalising gender in policy and planning: the ‘web’ of institutionalisation, DPU Working Paper No.74, pp.1-25.
Rusca, M., Alda-Vidal, C. and Kooy, M. (2018) Sanitation justice? The multiple dimensions of urban sanitation inequalities. In: Boelens, R., Perreault, T., and Vos, J. (eds) Water Justice, Cambridge University Press, pp.210-225
Shrestha, E. (2019) Without proper sanitation facilities, girls keep missing school during menstruation [Online] www.kathmandupost.com Available at: https://kathmandupost.com/national/2019/12/31/without-proper-sanitation-facilities-girls-keep-missing-school-during-menstruation [Accessed: 24.05.2022]
Thapa, S., and Aro, A.R. (2019) ‘Menstruation means impurity’: multi-level interventions are needed to break the menstrual taboo in Nepal, BMC Women’s Health, 21(84), pp.1-5
Cover image source: Hesperian Health Guides (2021) Sanitation for Cities and Towns [Online] Available at: https://en.hesperian.org/hhg/A_Community_Guide_to_Environmental_Health:Sanitation_for_Cities_and_Towns