Poor Access to WASH: a barrier for women in the workplace

Date: 16 November 2016
Author: Rockaya Aidara

aidara_r_picOn 19 November, we mark World Toilet Day and highlight the staggering fact that 2.4 billion people – one third of the world’s population – still live without access to proper sanitation. What does this mean for women in the workplace?

Poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) persists despite the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of two resolutions in 2010 and 2015 that recognize the human rights to water and sanitation. The December 2015 resolution placed particular emphasis on sanitation, which proved a greater challenge over the course of the Millennium Development Goals.

Sanitation is often neglected unless addressed as a separate right even though it is also a component of the right to an adequate standard of living. The 2015 resolution also calls upon states to promote women’s leadership and their full, effective and equal participation in decision making on water and sanitation management, and to ensure that a gender-sensitive approach is adopted in water and sanitation programmes.

This year’s World Toilet Day theme, Toilets and Jobs, is an opportunity to draw attention to WASH and women in the workplace. Many women in the South work in the informal economy with little or no access to reliable paid work, pension provision, social protection or health care. They are active in home-based work, in markets and trade, fields and in the waste sector. They face a number of barriers due to their roles and responsibilities associated with the socioeconomic hierarchy, which limit their economic empowerment. This leaves women at greater risk of falling into or remaining in poverty, experiencing workplace violence and discrimination, and being unable to fulfil their economic rights.

Under the framework of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC)/UN Women Joint Programme on Gender, Hygiene and Sanitation, interviews were conducted with women working in marketplaces in West and Central Africa. They voiced their concerns about the lack of sanitation facilities and the negative impact on their productivity, in particular during menstruation.1 Public toilets, even if available, are often unsanitary and poorly maintained. Without access to toilets, women and girls develop coping strategies: they eat and drink less, and have to defecate in the open, hiding wherever they can. They also stop working during menstruation. As noted by another research team, women and girls may delay urination and defecation but it is not possible to stop menstrual flow. The lack of facilities also exacerbates anxiety and stress during menstruation and increases their vulnerability.

In Southeast Asia, the financial cost of inadequate workplace environments for menstrual hygiene management was assessed in a four-country study analysing the economic impact of sanitation.

Around a quarter of all workplaces did not have toilets in Cambodia, and around 14 percent of workplaces had inadequate toilets in the Philippines. In Vietnam, around 3 percent of health stations and 74 percent of marketplaces had no toilets. Assuming women employees were absent for one day a month due to a lack of WASH facilities during their menstrual period, the study estimates more than 15 million workday absences in the Philippines and Vietnam combined and corresponding economic losses of millions of dollars.

The question of menstrual hygiene management has been woefully neglected in the past even though a woman menstruates on average for more than 30 years in her lifetime. Policies have failed to address this critical stage of women’s and girls’ lives. Toilets are built without taking their needs into account. To safely manage menstruation, women and girls first need information before the onset of menarche to understand the biological phenomenon and to manage it safely and with dignity. They also need services and infrastructure; in particular private, clean and equipped spaces where they can change and wash, and dispose of sanitary materials safely and discretely.

A safe work environment should include access to these services as a critical component of a decent work environment, as outlined by the International Labour Organization. Private sector companies have a role to play alongside governments as main providers of social services and social protection. While menstrual leave policies are under discussion in some Asian2 and European countries, it is critical to develop safety regulations and standards for WASH in both the formal and informal workplace, to ensure that women have access to toilets that are adequate for the management of menstruation. Even more critical is the enforcement of these regulations.

In the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as we look towards universal access to WASH services, public places and work environments should be seen as strategic locations to deliver these services. Improving access to WASH in the workplace will be beneficial for all: for women’s and girls’ rights to health and to an adequate standard of living as well as for their productivity and increased participation, and for men and boys who will also benefit from a better work environment. Ultimately such measures would significantly contribute to achieving access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls, and those in vulnerable situations, as outlined in SDG 6.2.



Rockaya Aidara is a policy specialist at the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), a UN entity with a mandate on water, sanitation and hygiene.  Rockaya manages the WSSCC/UN Women Joint Programme on Gender, Hygiene and Sanitation. Prior to joining WSSCC, she worked with UN Women and with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on gender and climate change respectively.



Show 2 footnotes

  1. Interviews conducted by the Joint Programme on Gender, Hygiene and Sanitation on the occasion of AfricaSan4.
  2. Cambodia and others have introduced menstrual leave.

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