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Day 15 of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence

AWC Berlin is participating in 2020’s “16 Days” campaign by posting stories on gender-based violence to inform and inspire action. Follow the series on our blog and social media and let us know what actions you’re taking.

Access to Basic Services: One Way to Prevent Gender-Based Violence

by Belinda Abraham, AWC Member


Nkhata Bay, Malawi, 2005: Toddler at a well that supplies clean drinking water.

I have been working in the area of international development for nearly twenty years and have had the privilege to work in such places as Malawi, Ethiopia, South Africa, Burundi, Indonesia, Cambodia, and most recently Vietnam. I have visited some of the poorest villages in the world and have been also floored by some of the world’s most opulent cities. As a development practitioner, I worked in the sector of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). The purpose of WASH programming is to improve the plight of poor and vulnerable families by helping them gain access to basic social services like water supply and toilets and also by ensuring the political commitment to support this access.

Tigray region, Ethiopia, 2008: Women travel far from home to get potable water and defecate in bushes.

Globally, 2 billion people do not have access to a basic toilet facility (Pritchard 2019). According to the WHO, 673 million people are forced to defecate in the open, in fields, near river banks, or in bushes (WHO 2019). The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates 780 million people do not have access to clean water (CDC 2016). Women in Africa and Asia can walk up to 3.7 miles, or 6 kilometers, to collect water, according to World Vision (Reid 2017). Water Aid estimates globally that one in every three women do not have access to a toilet and must use open fields. “This statistic, one in three, is the very same as the number of women and girls who experience physical, sexual or emotional abuse in their lifetimes” (Ahmed and Carvalho 2017).

I have to admit that in my own work I did not draw the immediate connections between water, sanitation, and poor hygiene and gender-based violence. As a female professional in this field, my own lack of attention to the glaring fact that women and girls have to travel far from their homes to collect water or to look for private and secluded places to use the toilet increases, by its very nature, their vulnerabilities and risk of attack, harassment, molestation, and even rape. However in 2014, following a series of highly publicized gang rapes and murders of young women and girls from poor families in India, access to sanitation became a subject of discussion and attention. The tragedy in India, surfaced in, among other places, a BBC News story, “Why India’s Sanitation Crisis Kills Women,” which noted that these attacks could have been prevented if the women had not had to use public toilets or go to the fields to defecate.

Malawi, 2005: Toilets are located far from classrooms and teachers’ supervision.

Following the 2014 reports from India, there were many anecdotal stories of young girls and women being sexually harassed and even raped when going to fields or using public toilets in Cambodia, Kenya, and Uganda. Attacks in school toilets, humanitarian camps, and in public toilets in urban slums are all too often occurrences where women and girls are marginalized and made vulnerable. Very few of these cases are even reported to the police, because of deeply entrenched cultural and social norms for women and girls, who learn to accept such types of harassment or sexual assault as “normal” (Jongjarb 2017). This for me underlined the importance of WASH for women—not only for health and economic reasons—but also for safety and security reasons.

Quang Nam, Vietnam, 2019: Thrive Networks provides a new house with an indoor toilet. Pictured: Belinda (left), Tam, and Tam’s mother.

While constructing toilets, water points, and well-engineered facilities will not end gender-based violence, it will reduce women’s and girls’ risks and vulnerability to attacks (Sommer et al. 2014). The bigger and more pressing challenge is changing the societal norms that tolerate gender-based violence (Sommer et al. 2014). I learned that even in my role as a development worker in WASH, I can help prevent gender-based violence. I can do so not only by the work I do, but also by how I do it. This means giving women and girls a voice, the ability to make decisions and influence how money is spent for their benefit and for the benefit of their community.

I hope my message will inspire you to take action: whatever you do, big or small, will make a difference in ending gender-based violence. There are many ways. This is one.

Call to Action
  • Learn more about some great organizations working to end gender-based violence through access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene by visiting Women Deliver, World Toilet Organization, and German Toilet Organization .
  • Advocate for safe public spaces for everyone by donating to programs that provide toilets and clean water to schools, health centers, and humanitarian camps. The following organizations explicitly give women and girls a voice and agency by involving them in the planning, design, and monitoring of facilities: Water Aid, UNICEF, Thrive Networks, Plan International, and World Vision.
  • Call out and report harassment and encourage others to do the same, especially where public facilities offer risks to women, children, and other marginalized groups due to poor lighting, location, or design.
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