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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collaboration, community, ngo, participatory management, united nations

Does The Human Right to Water and Sanitation = Water and Sanitation Justice?

Has anyone ever asked you “What do you do?” An interesting philosophical question for sure, but one of my condensed answers often is “I work for water justice and sanitation justice.” This means I want to participate in a more just water and sanitation world on individual, community, and political scales. In 2010, the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council officially adopted The Human Right to Water and Sanitation resolutions. These resolutions represented the emergence of an international legal framework to recognize water and sanitation (WatSan) as a human right through availability, quality, acceptability, accessibility, and affordability. In my mind, this consecrated right was also a potential catalyst for a more just WatSan world. But I had never stepped back to ponder why the right to WatSan might seem equivalent to WatSan justice until I read an insightful paper called Forests, development, and the globalisation of justice by Forsyth and Sikor. Their paper provides a background on the historical connection of rights and justice concepts and challenges readers to evaluate universal notions of such.

Here’s a quick history on the right to WatSan as documented on the great The Rights to Water and Sanitation website. In 1948, close to 50 states agreed in the UN General Assembly to sign a Universal Declaration of Human Rights which identified about 30 rights: the right to education, the right to a standard of living for adequate health, and so forth. This Declaration led to multi-national treaties, national constitutions, and national laws. In 1966, two legally binding treaties identified a right to life and right to health which inferred WatSan were necessary to human life. In 2002, a UN committee issued a comment on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights saying “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” Finally, Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque was appointed in 2008 to work with civil society organizations and states to identify best practices for WatSan, clarify the legality of WatSan human rights, and make recommendations towards MDG 7C. It was likely her work, along with a proposal from Bolivia, that forwarded the adoption of UN General Assembly Resolution 64/292 in July 2010 “calling on states and international organizations to provide financial resources, build capacity and transfer technology, particularly to developing countries, in scaling up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation.” There were 122 states voting for the resolution, 0 against, and 41 abstentions (including the United States). The UN Human Rights Council passed an updated resolution the next year. But will this universal human right to WatSan lead to a more just WatSan world?

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Above Photo: Urban Semillas.

Forsyth and Sikor offer a case study of UN REDD – a global mechanism that provides rewards to countries whose forestry practices augment global carbon stocks. They describe efforts within this program to incorporate a traditional view of justice distributing benefits fairly and recognizing all stakeholders. The authors argue this type of justice does “carry embedded notions of value, knowledge, property, access, and governance that need to be interrogated more fully.” They describe how this traditional definition of justice related to fairness in allocation and equality of opportunity arose from John Rawls. In their case study – even amidst discussions by multi-lateral organizations, states, and NGOs – certain forest users’ concerns about justice were not allowed to enter the conversation. Interestingly, Forsyth and Sikor highlight that a Rawlsian view of justice relies upon distributions of property rights, and they identify three problems with linking rights to justice: 1) difficult decisions about types rights to be granted in pursuit of just distributions, 2) universal definitions including some people and excluding others, and 3) property rights may still result in unjust distributions. They conclude: “there is an urgent need, therefore, to make the historical context of property rights and their relationships to justice transparent.”

Let us take these three problems of linking rights to justice to begin to probe into The Human Right to Water and Sanitation process. First, difficult decisions must be made about types of rights to be granted to ensure just distributions. Some aspects of WatSan resources (providing sustenance to humans and animals, filtering pollutants, sustaining plant life, etc.) might seem likely to take precedence. But the key question really is what actors decided which WatSan rights were defined in the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Organization resolutions? Second, universal definitions can result in “dispossession and exclusion” of rights for some people. WatSan rights, like forest rights, are not a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, think about varying levels of water purity in different locations, varying amounts of water at certain times of the year, different cultural uses of water, etc. Were these types of concerns incorporated into the 2011 Compilation of good practices for WatSan human rights? And how are these good practices adapted by region? Third, it is important to understand the process of distribution for property rights. WatSan rights are not always considered property, and they are not distributed on a global scale. WatSan rights are typically distributed on national and regional (or even watershed) scales. It could be valuable to decipher the scale of WatSan distributions in various locations to see what actors benefit from such distributions. As my Science and Justice professor recently said, he thinks Forsyth and Sikor call for participation of a different kind: to ask what is water and for who; to ask what is justice and for who; and to finally move into talk about WatSan rights based on those previous conversations. The authors themselves also say that Amartya Sen’s view of justice might be more helpful because it questions “what is being allocated and whose values and agendas are represented.”

asia, ngo, participatory management, rural, sanitation, sustainability, water justice, water management

Gandhian Thoughts on Gender, Water, and Sanitation

An eight-hour overnight train journey leaves me waking up just before arrival to Dindigul Junction as the engine rumbles to a stop. For my final field visit in South India, I have come to Gandhigram Trust to see how their recent water and sanitation interventions, funded by Arghyam, have affected women and men in rural villages as part of my studies on gender, water, and sanitation.

Gandhigram began with the encouragement of Mahatma Gandhi. He supported his two friends, Dr. Soundram and Dr. Ramachandran, in starting an organization for local development in rural areas. Since 1947, Gandhigram has engaged in a number of activities to empower those in rural communities through promotion of local industries to strengthen economies, building low-cost health centers, providing housing for abandoned children and the elderly, creating schools for youth to study, and – lately – assisting villages in developing water and sanitation systems.

Kasturba, Gandhi, Soundram, and Ramachandran
Above Photo: Dr. Ramachandran, Mahatma Gandhi, Kasturba Gandhi, and Dr. Soundram.

My interest in Gandhian principles (non-violence, simplicity, empowerment, equality, localism, and others) excites me for this visit. I am curious to see how such principles are incorporated into Gandhigram’s water and sanitation activities. What’s more, gender equality and Gandhian philosophy have much in common as they both advocate equality for all people regardless of socio-economic backgrounds and bottom-up, participatory social structures.

Upon arrival, I visit with the Secretary of Gandhigram, M.R. Rajagopalan. He claims not to be a scholar, but his shelves are filled with the writings of Gandhiji and other books on Gandhian thought. He authored a paper entitled “Gandhi – A Divine Environmentalist.” In this paper, he argues if all people are able to embrace Gandhian principles, the world (people, plants, animals, and inanimate objects) will be a kinder, more holistic, and more sustainable place. He says:

“Gandhiji would have wanted us to follow the path of the robust left – of the – centre social democratism where empowerment of women and the weaker/poorer sections of our society was guaranteed. Secondly, he would have liked us to link environmentalism with some basic social, economic, and ethical tenants.”

With this in mind, how does Gandhian thought translate to Gandhigram’s mission to assist villages in access, planning, and managing water and sanitation systems? Further, how does Gandhian thought overlap with reaching gender equality for water and sanitation systems?

By raising awareness about the importance of the use of toilets in reducing the spread of diseases, renovating community standposts and other water structures, and providing micro-credit for the construction of toilets, Gandhigram is creating better access to water and sanitation resources for some women and men in villages. If all people are able to garner equal access (a gender equality and Gandhian goal), less people will fall ill or have to relocate to urban areas (a gender equality and Gandhian goal). Access to water and sanitation resources for many women in these villages is improved by the creation and renovation of community standposts, which reduces their time fetching water, and the construction of toilets, which provides a place for them to manage their menstrual cycle (a gender equality goal).

Renovated Standpost
Above Photo: A renovated standpost in village.

Gandhigram assists with the formation of community groups in villages. One group, called the Village Water and Sanitation Committee, consists of village elders, government leaders, religious leaders, and others of influence. Another group, called the Water Users Group, consists of women in the villages. Both of these groups are intended to facilitate a bottom-up, participatory approach to water and sanitation planning and management (a gender equality and Gandhian goal). But these participatory management structures for planning and management are still evolving, and there are subtle caste, economic, political, and gender disparities which result in unequal participation in planning and managing water and sanitation resources in these villages.

Even in the presence of these existing hierarchical social structures which detract from true equitable and participatory systems, Gandhian principles provide valuable guidance for fair and just access, planning, and management of water and sanitation systems. Other scholars, like Amartya Sen, argue that Gandhian thought is not the answer for global environmental problems. Yet, seemingly, few would contend that fair and equal access, planning, and management of water and sanitation resources is a negative aspiration. It is my belief that equity and empowerment must also come from within each individual. It is up to every one of us in our daily lives – whether in a village or in a city – to incorporate gender equality and Gandhian principles (non-violence, simplicity, empowerment, equality, localism, and others) into our routines in order to create and maintain equitable systems for water and sanitation resources.

“Success attends where truth reigns”- Gandhi’s last phrase for Gandhigram.

Author’s Postcript:
I am living in India for an internship with a water-focused NGO called Arghyam. Along the way, I will document my journey. Please see the Water in India page above for more information.