Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions are often complex. They comprise of many components, including safe water supply, construction of toilets, behaviour-change strategies and mainstreaming of gender and social inclusion. Although access to WASH is fundamental for human health and wellbeing, about 758 million people still lack access to basic drinking water services, and 2 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation services. Progress in providing WASH services has not occurred equally, with a range of inequalities in who can access and benefit from WASH services.

Gender and social equality in WASH
Photo: Courtesy of Maria Reyes (IRC)

Unsafe water and sanitation disproportionately impact social groups, including women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities, people with disabilities, people marginalized due to ethnicity, caste, poverty or other factors, and those living in vulnerable situations, such as refugees and people experiencing homelessness. Many of these forms of exclusion may intersect, exacerbating inequalities. For example, poor women living in informal settlements may be negatively impacted by long waiting times for collecting water, privacy and safety needs related to use of shared sanitation facilities, and underrepresentation within local WASH decision-making bodies and service providers. Promoting gender and social equality (GSE) is therefore a key aim of many WASH interventions. It is also viewed as important for their sustainability and effectiveness.

The end goal: ensuring that WASH interventions incorporate GSE in their design and implementation

In contrast to health and technical outcomes of WASH interventions, such as the prevalence of diarrhoea or technology uptake, GSE outcomes are rarely assessed, monitored and evaluated. Synthesis of research evidence on GSE outcomes resulting from WASH interventions is therefore needed, to ensure that development partners (e.g. civil society organizations, donor organizations) and authorities (e.g. regional and national water and sanitation decision-makers) mainstream GSE into WASH intervention design and implementation.

With financial support of the Centre of Excellence for Development, Impact and Learning, SEI researchers are using systematic review methodology to synthesize evidence on gender and social equality outcomes of WASH interventions. The work seeks to answer the following question:  What is the impact of complex WASH interventions on gender and social equality outcomes in low- and middle-income countries? First findings are expected in autumn 2021.

The team initially organized an online workshop to consult with key stakeholders who work within the WASH sector. The meeting included representatives from the NGO community, donor organizations and academia across the world.

“A key message that we took away from this consultation was that even though we will be looking mainly at WASH interventions targeting the household level, policies and institutional structures at many different levels in society influence social and gender outcomes,” SEI Research Fellow Sarah Dickin observed. “Another insight was the importance of examining how men and boys have been included in interventions that seek to reduce gender inequalities related to WASH”.

Word cloud from workshop on gender and social equality in WASH

A word cloud that emerged from the online stakeholder workshop illustrates how participants answered the question, “What types of GSE outcomes do you think are usually missing from evaluations of WASH interventions?”. The size of the phrases indicate number of mentions during workshop. (Source: SEI)

The project’s end goal is to advance evaluation practice in the WASH sector by providing methodological advice on how to include and assess GSE outcomes. The findings will help policymakers and practitioners to improve the design and evaluations of gender mainstreaming in WASH interventions, and to learn from best practices.