Access to water and sanitation isn’t only about survival but also about the possibility to live a socially and culturally fulfilling life. Water access and working toilets are a make-or-break factor for women when it comes to work or attending school.

“We tend to think that when people get access to toilets and running water this automatically leads to better equality,” says Sarah.

A global monitoring system on water access and sanitation is under the Sustainable Development Goal 6. Sarah notes that the weakness of this system is that it focuses only on mapping sanitation infrastructure and the presence of faucets in households, leaving other important information out.

“Information on who uses the facilities and factors that may affect the utilization, like gender and income, are not included in this monitoring system,” says Sarah.

Sarah leads the research project that looks precisely at these forgotten factors and aims to create an index for water and sanitation, also known as the Empowerment in WASH Index or EWI. An initial study from Burkina Faso revealed that people may have access to a faucet and a toilet, but some members of the community use them more than others. Many women don’t use the facilities because they are not safe or because families can’t afford it.

“Our research has also revealed that although the local government is encouraging households to connect to the water system, many households choose not to. Often it is a man who controls a family’s economy and he may not see the benefits of investing in running water as he is not usually the one fetching it,” says Sarah.

SEI and Lund University will complete a more extensive study in a township in Nairobi, Kenya where the local government has started to build water systems and sanitation solutions.

“We hope to contribute with knowledge about factors that influence who, in the end, gets access to water. For example, many residents in townships do not own the land or houses they live in. They have limited control over their housing and consequently are reluctant to invest in better water infrastructure,” says Sarah.

Sarah doesn’t see a quick solution to the problem, which isn’t unique to just water. Similar tools have been developed for health and agricultural challenges.

“These issues are being discussed but if we don’t have figures it will be hard to show how important this is. It is about long-term change. Improving gender equality in decision-making regarding water can supply valuable insights for other development issues.”