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.
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.’ 
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 . 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.
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
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.
- Chant, S. and McIlwaine, C. (2013). “Gender, Urban Development and the Politics of Space”, 4 June 2013.
- 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.