Photo: Arne Hoel (World Bank) / Flickr.

Women and girls suffer more in the absence of safe and adequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), compared to men and boys. This happens because of biological factors, like needing a private toilet with water and soap to manage menstrual hygiene. Gender norms play a large role too: in many cultures, they are the ones who carry the burden of collecting water, cleaning and caring for sick relatives.

So we tend to think that digging a well, building a toilet or providing a water pipe connection automatically benefits women and addresses gender inequalities. But does it always?

The Empowerment in WASH Index (EWI) has been created to challenge our assumptions and close the gap in our understanding.

EWI is a pragmatic, survey-based tool that diagnoses and monitors WASH interventions, revealing what truly improves gender equality. It can be used to design inclusive WASH infrastructure and interventions; monitor and evaluate the performance of WASH-related projects over time; and make comparisons between countries.

“We have to move beyond popular assumptions about what kind of benefits WASH programmes can bring and move to evidence-based precise monitoring and practice. Water and sanitation services should help empower people to escape poverty and have control over their lives, instead of perpetuating inequality.”

— Dr Sarah Dickin, SEI Research Fellow leading the team developing EWI

Current evaluations of WASH infrastructure only tell us if water or sanitation facilities are basic, improved, or safely managed. They don’t tell us if water points and toilets benefit everyone equally, nor if this infrastructure enables users to be healthy and have a better life regardless of gender and other social identities. Even the indicators of SDG6 (Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all) are effectively gender-blind and do not lead to the collection of sex-disaggregated data.

So we often can’t say for sure if a new water point helps women save time for schooling or developing a business, nor do we know if newly installed toilets will be used by everyone in the household, if the service is affordable, or if women had a chance to contribute to infrastructure planning decisions.

EWI collects, tracks and rates the data on all these dimensions – providing evidence for gender outcomes.

How it works

EWI uses 12 indicators to create empowerment profiles for male and female respondents based on their perceptions of how WASH facilities and services work for them. It then calculates who is empowered, and to what level. This data shows us how individuals, households, or communities are excluded from access to WASH services.

An EWI assessment carried out in Asufiti North District in western Ghana found that women are disempowered because they have less agency than men in their households to participate in community WASH planning activities. In other words, women have fewer chances to contribute when their district decides to invest in water points or toilets – so new infrastructure may not meet their needs. As a result, well-intended investments may generate suboptimal value and not improve gender equality outcomes as much as expected.

Data collected with EWI can be used to design more inclusive WASH-related projects; assess their performance over time; or make comparisons between regions and countries, as factors that empower individuals vary across cultural contexts. This information leads to better prioritization of work, improved cost-effectiveness of development efforts, and, ultimately, water and sanitation services that contribute to well-being, equity and poverty reduction.