collaboration, community, development, general, homeless, international, ngo, participatory management, sanitation, united nations

Empowerment and Gender Equality in Water and Sanitation: What does it mean? What does it matter?

If you know of work done by non-profit or governmental organizations globally, you have likely heard the words –  empowerment and gender equality. Groups worldwide use these terms in apparent pursuit of more equitable water and sanitation projects ranging from entrepreneurship to provision. When first exposed to these terms during my master’s studies in 2010, I became intrigued with understanding how empowerment and gender equality related to more participatory water and sanitation projects. Yet after conducting research for my master’s project [Empowerment and Gender Equality for Water and Sanitation in Rural India: Two Case Studies], it became clear these terms were used by organizations very differently. While some organizations might imply a borewell for water results in empowerment, others said participating on a decision-making committee results in empowerment (and so on).

Amidst this array of disparate definitions, it appeared to me such terms still might have some capacity to be somewhat useful conceptual approaches for more equitable water and sanitation projects. So when I received the opportunity this past summer to attend two different workshops focusing on empowerment and gender equality, I took the chance. In July, I attended a United Nations program in Geneva to see how different UN entities employed (or failed to) these concepts. In August, I traveled to UCLA for another workshop focusing on empowerment in public health.

After attending the UN Graduate Study Program, I began to wonder if there might be better discourse for equitable water and sanitation projects globally. Study program participants heard over twenty seminars from UN agencies – International Labor Organization, International Organization for Migration, Inter-Parliamentary Union, UN High Commission for Refugees, UN Human Rights Council, Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UN Office at Geneva, UN Secretary General Envoy on Youth, UNAIDS, UNCTAD, UNDP, UNEP, UNFPA, and UNICEF. Many of these organizations talked about how they focus on women internally and externally, but it was often difficult for them to describe how they incorporated a true gendered-approach into their practices (e.g. focusing on power differentials between all people not just looking only at women). It appeared some of them were stuck in a paradigm of second-wave feminism when more transnational feminist approaches are now critical. What this means in basic terms is that most UN agencies use a “universal woman” approach (i.e. a “western woman” approach) instead of looking at larger nation-state and economic structural disparities.

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Above Photo: Author of blog post is located in left front row in white short-sleeve button-down. UN Photographer.

Studying at the UCLA Global Health and Empowerment workshop provided a chance to dig more into the theory behind empowerment in various disciplines. We read everything from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Naila Kabeer’s Resources, Agency, and Achievements, and Jane Parpart’s Lessons from the Field. See entire syllabus here. This course covered a variety of critical and conservative empowerment theories in global health and global development (that word again) literature. My final grant-proposal project focused on sanitation and health issues in the US for two reasons: 1) the global north/global south binary is highly disconcerting to me, and 2) we have dire sanitation needs here that also demand attention. One of those sanitation needs is sanitation with/for those living outside in many cities in this wealthy nation. My proposal “Together for WASH: Pilot Program for Participatory and Gender-Sensitive Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene with Unhoused People in the United States” is currently undergoing final review. Here’s a sneak peek:

The long-term goal of this proposal is to improve measurable public health outcomes linked to WASH among unhoused people (men, women, and children) living in group camps furthering their upward social mobility and capacity to participate in social change. The objective of this proposal is to pilot low-cost and scalable WASH solutions coupled with participatory WASH programs in two group camps in two US cities. This pilot program is gender-sensitive using gender-specific solutions (e.g. eco-urinals and a menstrual hygiene management program) and gender-sensitive participatory techniques (e.g. community dialogue about gender burdens of WASH and representative participation). This pilot program uses an arts-based approach to give unhoused people a venue to highlight vulnerability in water and sanitation while communicating with policymakers to influence greater social change. This pilot program will lead to engagement in both individual and collective processes of empowerment resulting in critical consciousness among unhoused people in the realm of WASH.

So the jury is still out on water and sanitation development sector usage of terms like empowerment and gender equality.  It is not that empowerment and gender equality approaches are incompatible with true participatory water and sanitation programs. It is just that: 1) empowerment water and sanitation projects should be bottom-up instead of the top-down, 2) empowerment and gender equality definitions should be clearly outlined prior to development of water and sanitation programs, 3) larger structural frameworks and power structures have to be taken into account (e.g. examining how someone can experience empowerment on a local scale while being disempowered on the global economic scale), 4)  it is critical to consider scale when thinking about empowerment and gender equality in water and sanitation, 5) empowerment as part of international-development discourse might actually reinforce oppressions, and 6) alternative conceptual approaches for examining and participating in equitable water and sanitation programs could include liberatory or autonomous frameworks.

Author’s Postscript: If you would like to read more about empowerment theories from multiple disciplines, please check out this shared Google Drive list put together by colleagues and myself.

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community, development, general, global, ngo, united nations

What kind of world do we want after 2015?

Sometimes it can feel difficult to make our voices heard on this big planet. But I just found out about a new website created by the United Nations with civil society groups to collect ideas for solving global poverty problems [including water and sanitation] after 2015. It’s called The World We Want 2015. Like the internet and the United Nations, it’s not perfect. Themes aren’t inclusive, not everyone have access to a computer, and allocated time is too short. But if you’re interested in global conversations regarding “development” after Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015, this is a chance to hear and speak about such issues from January 15th to February 15th.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were identified after the Millennium Summit in 2000. The eight goals cover topics such as poverty, environment, and health. Critics of MDGs cite problems such as lack of justification behind goals, difficulty monitoring goals, or inadequate attention to issues like agriculture or sanitation. Others believe MDGs encourage country progress, help the global sector focus on more than just income, and direct funding towards related projects. The UN has been tracking MDG progress. The 2012 MDG Report indicates targets for reducing extreme poverty, halving populations without safe drinking water, and improving conditions for those in slums have been met. But differences between regions are stark. For example, Sub-Saharan Africa is far behind all other regions. And sanitation targets have not been met worldwide.

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Above Photo: Tarek on Wikimedia Commons

People are talking about what should happen after 2015. Should there be another set of goals? Should “development” embrace bottom-up processes? What about foreign aid? Should indicators be universal? Some of these post-2015 topics are documented on The Broker – an online magazine for globalization and development. And The World We Want 2015 website provides an opportunity for civil society groups to engage in similar conversations. There are a few ways to get involved. Join the website using this registration link or follow on twitter at #post2015, #beyond2015, and #inequalities2015.

If you’re interested in water and sanitation like me, you can check out the water consultation – the portal on the website for talking about water and sanitation after 2015. There are three water sub-consultations: 1) Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene 2) Water Resources Management, and 3) Wastewater and Water Quality. Each week until February 15th, the sub-consultations will feature a different topic for discussion. Discussions will be compiled at a meeting held in The Hague around World Water Day 2013 on March 22nd. On a side note – it’s disconcerting they didn’t include sanitation as an independent consultation. Especially when the world is so far behind in meeting the MDG for sanitation. But I guess here’s my chance using the website to say so. Happy Friday!