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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

Christopher Yap11 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.

Why is it so tempting for livelihood projects to ignore poor people?

Julian H Walker9 February 2012

PHOTO: J. Walker

Approaches to development which prioritize economic growth have been consistently criticized on the basis of their trickle-down assumptions, and for losing sight of equality as an objective. An ongoing theme in international development, therefore, has been attempts to develop frameworks which ensure that the needs of poor women and men are understood, and catered for, in economic development and livelihood programming.  Yet all too often there seems to be a sort of slippage between the intention of such frameworks and their application, whereby, in practice, they are perversely used to justify the exclusion of poor people.

One anti-poverty framework which is currently in the ascendancy is the ‘Making Markets Work for the Poor’ (M4P) approach[1]. Championed by major donors such as the UK DfID and the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), M4P was developed in part as a corrective to previous anti-poverty approaches, such as the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach, which,  while it had a strong emphasis on the strategies and assets of poor households, failed to robustly address the structural and institutional constraints that exclude poor women and men from accessing markets and employment.

In this light, the M4P approach explicitly aims to combine growth with active measures to ensure the access of the poor to markets. Its intention is to foster systemic change focused on the systems of entitlement and the (formal and informal) ‘rules’ or institutions that support or impede poor people’s access to and control over markets.

Over the last six months I, along with DPU associate Nadia Taher,  have been working with the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) in their South Caucasus Progamme[2] (which covers their development assistance activities in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia). This work builds on a long history of collaboration between the DPU and the SDC working on gender equality issues. In this case we are working with the SDC’s Gender and Governance advisor to bring a stronger gender equality focus to their work in the region.

One of the issues that we are addressing with the SDC team is how to make sure that the eight Economic Development and Employment (EDE) projects that they support in the South Caucasus (which have all been structured using the M4P approach) actively cater to the needs of poor women and men. These eight projects, reflecting the prevalence of poverty in remote rural areas in the South Caucasus, are all in the field of horticulture and animal husbandry, and attempt in different ways to connect village households dependent on farming to urban markets for their produce.

A critical issues here is that, not infrequently, the NGOs implementing these EDE  projects appear to be working in ways which sideline the inclusion and interests of the poor. Many of the project teams feel that they should primarily focus on support to existing private sector enterprises (including, in some cases, established international businesses), but are hesitant to work with the poorest women and men farmers or agricultural labourers.  Ironically, the justification for this approach is typically that to work directly with poor women and men would contravene the principles of the M4P framework, which proposes a ‘light touch’ facilitative approach, working with existing actors and processes, rather than interventions which create new processes and institutions, which are dependent on the project and may therefore be unsustainable. Whatever the justification, the outcome is odd for poverty focused projects when,  for example, it is seen as in keeping with the M4P framework  to purchase lorries for an established dairy processing business, while direct interventions such as support to the creation of cooperatives or famers associations, or start up grants or loans to poor households are disallowed on the basis that they are ‘unsustainable’.

In other cases, project interventions prioritize the interests of growth, but do not attempt to promote equitable access to the wealth created. For example one project focuses on supporting established businesses to develop fruit processing in high quality fruit value chains, arguing that this will create wage labour (casual agricultural labour and work in processing facilities), but envisages no interventions to support the rights and labour conditions of a casual agricultural labour force, despite the fact that this is a labour force which is notoriously vulnerable to poorly paid and exploitative working conditions.  Thus their interpretation of the systemic change envisaged by M4P appears to be about changing the systems of market access for medium sized business, while leaving the systems whereby agricultural labours are exploited untouched.

The SDC are aware of these issues, and, in response, have been stressing that there is space within the M4P framework for a more active, rights based interpretation. For example, they point out that the M4P approach advocates working with a full range of ‘market players’ – and, while it is important to work with the private sector in the interest of economic growth, rights based and pro-equality interventions also require working with other market players, specifically supporting civil society and government bodies working on issues related to labour rights, governance, and market regulation, or producers associations which protect the rights and negotiating capacity or women and men engaged in farming.

So why, in this case, is it that the application of pro-poor frameworks such as M4P often lead, in practice, to pro-business interventions which sideline the poor?  Is it that models of growth-led development are so embedded in our minds that we can’t take alternative forms of enterprise, such as cooperatives, or state regulated markets, seriously? Or that the ways in which the performance of economic development projects are measured (for example economic return on investment) mean that a truly pro-poor orientation will always score badly in the short term? Or that poor people are difficult to reach, because they don’t fit into neat organised associations which are easy to work with, and conform to the requirements of our framework? Or that dealing the institutions that underpin poverty requires confronting vested interests, and sensitive political structures that project teams feel are ‘out of reach’? Whatever the reason, it seem very clear that however sound frameworks  such as M4P are on paper, we need to apply constant critical scrutiny to what they deliver in practice, as they have a tendency to create a new logic all of their own when they hit the real world.

[1] http://www.m4phub.org/

[2] http://www.sdc.admin.ch/en/Home/Countries/Commonwealth_of_Independent_States_CIS/Southern_Caucasus_Georgia_Armenia_Azerbaijan