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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.

Disconnected thoughts from a disconnected India

By Ding Liu, on 18 November 2010

Post written by: Pooja Varma. DPU alumna 2009

About a month ago I had the opportunity to attend the 361 Degrees Conference on Design & Informal Cities in Bombay, with my friend Laura. The event was compelling as it boasted respected academics and practitioners within the urban development field. The theme for the conference, Design and Informal Cities, was also extremely pertinent for India and myself as a planner. But I also wanted to satisfy a personal curiosity of seeing how such a relevant theme would be managed and showcased by Indian organizers in Mumbai, which has become a poster city for slum dwellers and housing rights.

While the panels of speakers were well regarded, knowledgeable and effective, the conference itself came across as a confused and self-indulgent attempt to achieve relevance and prominence, a reflection perhaps of India’s overall urban development. I can pin point many out of place elements such as the abrupt dance performance celebrating India’s “achievements” barely minutes after discussing the lives of more than 6 million people in Bombay living in poverty, in slums, everyday stripped of their dignity, without adequate access to basic services like shelter, sanitation and toilets. Having a world famous architect who has no connection to informal cities showcase his work as a grand finale to the two-day conference on design and informal cities as the theme is another.

A major disconcerting aspect of the entire experience was the realization that the students and professionals in the audience, educated in Bombay within the fields of architecture, planning and urbanism were completely ignorant about the failure of Indian policies on appropriate housing. They seemed to know nothing about alternate slum upgrading schemes that have successfully reduced health risks and improved quality of life in informal housing like the Slum Networking Programme implemented in Ahmedabad, the active and effective women’s NGOs like the Self Employed Women’s Association and SPARC that work on the grassroots level, with poor communities, slum dwellers acting as facilitators and intermediaries, advocating for housing rights.

After two days of listening to the impressive work and projects undertaken by people and organizations around the world on informal settlements, the concluding questions session left the impression that the vast majority of the audience did not know much about slums or slum dwellers. These students, the future city managers, designers, architects and planners of Indian cities are not equipped to understand the greatest urban issue facing most countries in the developing world. Their unabashed ignorance and lack of understanding resonates the cusp of the problem in an economically fast growing India. And that problem is the deep disconnect within Indian society. A disconnect between the social classes. The privileged or middle class leads a life so far removed from the reality of the poor that it is not their reality. They may live in the same city, on the same street, but live in different worlds.

India as a country does have technical experts, thinkers, academics, and financial resources it needs to improve the cities and realize equitable development. What is lacking is the political will that stems from the general attitude of the majority of the influential, the privileged and middle class that looks away while claiming to look beyond the appalling civic condition. But the divide is not just one of class, but also of a grave lack of understanding of what the poor want or need. They are perceived as beneficiaries of government spending while the middle class relentlessly evades taxes, builds gated communities and fancy homes over dilapidating infrastructure and rubbish piles. The government is blamed for not doing enough, for overt corruption and inefficiency; while the privileged occasionally hindered by the absence of domestic help, continue to pursue a self-interested life style.

361º: the degree of [in]difference

By Ding Liu, on 10 November 2010

Post written by: Laura Colloridi. DPU alumna 2009

At its fourth edition, the 361 Degrees Conference organised by ‘Indian Architect & Builder’ magazine explored the subject of Design & Informal Cities. Held in Mumbai, a mega-city with an estimated 55 per cent of its population living in informal housing, the conference aimed to “address the need for design interventions” in urban informal sectors. The first day has been dedicated to the discussion of politics of space, while the second and last day of the event focused on global practices and strategies.

Reading the 361 Degrees’ theme abstract one point called my attention. The first is that the summary starts stating that “[s]lums […] are undeniably a serious urban problem”. It is possible that this statement was made in good faith and the real meaning is that ‘slums are the object of urban concern’; however, it is also possible that the phrase naively declares the organizers’ perspective. This is a standpoint that does not recognise that informal settlements are the consequence and not the root of urban issues; consequently its adoption might mislead the research for the real causes of the problems.

After a series of presentations of the presenters and an out-of-context video about ultra-expensive high-tech building systems, Rahul Mehrotra, a practising architect working between Mumbai and Chicago, finally kicked the ball and illustrated his vision of the informal Mumbai. Mehrotra observed that nowadays Mumbai is not a city, but two; two worlds coexist within one name. The components of the biggest Indian city are not reduced to the binary of formal/informal, but they are identified with the concepts of ‘static’ (permanent, bi-dimensional and monumental) and ‘kinetic’ city (temporary, three-dimensional and incremental). The ‘kinetic’ city is defined as an “indigenous urbanism” with a “bazaar-like” form and a representation of the “local logic”. This city is not only the city of the poor and Mehrotra made use of examples such as the loan used for weddings and cricket matches around the clock to show how the elites also contribute to the “elastic urban condition”.

Regarding the housing sector, the architect highlighted the fact that approximately 60 per cent of Mumbai’s population lives in informal accommodations within an estimated 10 per cent of the city’s area. Slum dwellers’ associations and movements have been pointed out as the dialogue tool that can be used to turn over the undemocratic processes created by global pressures and the world-class city aspirations. Mehrotra concluded advocating for a substitution of the notion of formality with the one of the kinetic city and he challenged the public to physically represent its fluid nature.

After Mehrotra’s introduction the conference moved toward the discussion of the political scenarios behind the construction field in Indian cities with the speeches of Liza Weinstein and Gautam Bhan. Weinstein analyzed the context that favoured the Mumbai mafias’ shift from the management of the black market to the real estate sector. According to the researcher the state “supportively neglected” both the local ‘goondas’ (thugs) and the development mafias since the first were assuming the government’s responsibilities of fulfilling the low-cost housing shortage, and the seconds have been in charge of materialising the elitist utopia of a global Mumbai. Within the depicted setting, Weinstein highlighted the need to overcome the manipulative branding of the legal/illegal dichotomy.  Gautam Bhan, author of the critical book ‘Swept off the Map’, called for a deeper understanding of the terms into which the poor live and migrate to the city. He echoed Hardoy’s (et al, 2001) observation that “[t]here is something wrong with a legal and institutional system the deems illegal the ways by which most new housing is built, including virtually all the houses that is affordable by low-income households”. Bhan also recalled Baross’ (1987) PSBO-OBSP model to explain the development process in low-income countries and he believes that it is fundamental that this model is accepted by the state and local authorities in order to achieve a meaningful democracy.

The same topic of political threads within spatial arenas has been discussed at a deeper level by the writer and architect Eyal Weizman. The speaker looked at the differences between the formal/informal and legal/illegal binaries describing the “structured chaos” existing in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Palestinian case represents the extreme scenario where politics and space are intertwined and where what Weizman called a “controlled disintegration” is happening. As a further example of illegality within the formality (or vice-versa depending on the perspective of the observer), Weizman portrayed what he calls the ‘political plastic’. This is the spatial environment where the “often deliberate, selective absence of the government intervention promotes unregulated process of spatial transformations and dispossession”.

On the second day the conference translated its visions into actions and physical forms by presenting the innovative social projects of Alfredo Brillembourg (Urban Think Tank), Alejandro Echeverri and Revathi Kamath. These projects perfectly represent the conference topic working in the informal cities by means of design solutions; however, this is not the only possible way and another original project that links the informal city directly with its governance issues was introduced. This is the case of the recently-born project Transparent Chennai initiated by Nithya Raman. This initiative aims to empower residents through facilitating information regarding the development of their city and improving the accountability of the government. The information is summarised and represented in the form of maps and it is easily accessible either online or via other means through grassroots organisations.

Despite all these challenging and stimulating insights delivered by the speakers the overall impression of the conference has been only of partial success. There are two main reasons behind my disappointment. First, a conference that is supposed to discuss social inequities should stimulate a deeper public debate. The chosen classic format of paper presentations with panel discussions forcibly inserted between sessions did not allow for any constructive dialogue. Second, the young architecture students that accounted for the majority of the audience seemed to be insensitive to the raised point of the critical role that authorities’ support plays within architectural and urban interventions. The audience appeared concerned merely with design options and with participating in the final lecture given by famous architect Richard Meier. As a confirmation of this (degree of) indifference a comment of the presenter remarked that, due to the topic, this year less than 250 people attended the event (against the 1000 of past sessions) and getting sponsored by corporations or institutions has been unusually difficult.

Luckily, at the end of the conference we were able to enjoy a dance performance that under a stage-size Indian flag made us all forget the million people that still live in informal cities.

Baross, P. (1987) Land supply for low-income housing: issues and approaches. Regional Development Dialogue.
Hardoy, J.E. , Mitlin, D. , Satterthwaite, D. (2001) Environmental problems in an urbanizing world: finding solutions for cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Earthscan, London, UK.
The views expressed are solely those of the blog post author and they do not necessarily represent the views of DPU staff or of any other author who publishes on this blog.