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The gender equity blind spot

WASH organizations are putting a greater emphasis on women and girls in their efforts to end open defecation but do we struggle to practice what we preach?

When organizations that work in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) discuss gender, it’s usually in reference to program beneficiaries. That’s an important conversation to have – women are disproportionately affected by contaminated water, poor sanitation, and inadequate hygiene facilities because they are often responsible for household WASH and the health of their family.

In 2009, a gender equality and equity situation analysis for WASH in rural Cambodia revealed a lack of gender consideration in all areas of WASH programming, from hardware design to monitoring and evaluation. The report noted that data collected for research or for M&E was rarely disaggregated by sex. At the policy level, Ministry of Rural Development had developed a Gender Mainstreaming Manual, but the report found that “both content and implementation are weak.”

In the past decade, Cambodia made significant progress in helping women access improved water, safe toilets, and handwashing stations. Organizations heeded many of the report’s recommendations. Disaggregating end-user data by sex has now become the norm. New products and services are nearly always developed with input from women. The pour-flush toilet, the Paradise toilet shelter, and HappyTap portable sink were all designed in collaboration with consumers (predominantly mothers). The Ministry of Rural Development incorporated gender mainstreaming into the 2011 – 2025 National Strategy for Rural Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene. The policy now calls on organizations to consider gender when “designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating policies and service delivery in all political, economic, and social areas.”

Despite the progress, new data suggests that organizations have a major blind spot when it comes to women’s empowerment – themselves.

Gender inequity at the organizational level

A recent Organizational Network Analysis1 (ONA) investigated the relationships between actors in Cambodia’s rural sanitation and hygiene subsector. It looked at 88 organizations, companies, national government ministries, and donors (only those with an office in Phnom Phnom and a focus on rural sanitation and hygiene)2. The survey showed that gender is a dividing line in the network. Thirty-two percent (32%) of the actors are headed by a woman. Among NGOs and companies, less than 30% are led by a woman. Only donors have gender parity at the top level.

The analysis also showed that certain disparities are associated with the gender of the head of the organization. Woman-led organizations are significantly less connected and central to the network than organizations run by men. On average, they reported 40% fewer connections and less than half of the level of ‘betweenness centrality’, meaning they are much less likely to be an informational bridge between two other actors. Also, organizations led by a woman are less likely to have confidence3 in other organizations headed by women.

Some of these findings may not be surprising, but this ONA represents the first analysis of gender data at the organizational level in the Cambodian WASH network. It is important because it provides an impetus for organizations to examine our own leadership on the issue of gender equity.

Of course, there is no simple way to end the gender divide within and among organizations. Appointing a woman as the head of an organization or department, although a positive step, may not improve connectivity and will not transform the system that keeps women back from leadership positions. Organizations that work on rural sanitation and hygiene operate within a wider system that includes barriers to women’s success. According to the International Labour Organization, only 38% of students enrolled in higher education in Cambodia are women. To offset the lack of women enrolled in universities, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs provides skills and vocational training to women. But, according to a soon-to-be published WaterAid report, the training is mostly limited to traditionally gendered skills such as hairdressing, silk weaving, and handicrafts, thus, potentially but not intentionally reinforcing gender inequities.

Set against this backdrop, WASH organizations face an uphill battle to tackle the gender divide. But there are opportunities for them to take proactive steps to create an enabling environment for women to reach leadership roles.

Building networks for women professionals in WASH is a good example. Although there are various sub-groups working on technical issues such as fecal sludge management or behavior change communication, until recently there was no group focused on gender equity. This year, WaterAid organized a platform for women WASH professionals to share stories, discuss challenges, and strategize how to break down barriers for the next generation.

Beyond initiatives organized by actors on the ground, international donors are in a strong position to accelerate change. Major WASH funders such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are already putting a focus on women and girls. If they and other donors included good measures of organizational gender equity in their funding criteria, it would help create urgency for further meaningful action.

Above all, it’s imperative that we lead by example. Set aside the basic moral imperative to strive for gender equality, and the fact that we get better results when we engage half the population in our work. There will be a significant and growing credibility gap for women’s empowerment advocates if they did not champion it within their organization and networks.

Collectively we also need to be more conscious of how gender equity in our own organizations and networks affects our work. Despite being led by a woman Executive Director and women heading nearly all departments, WaterSHED’s work to improve gender equity within the organization is not complete. When we began our women’s empowerment program to engage more women as consumers, sales agents, and suppliers in the WASH market, we had to look in-house first. How many of our field staff were women? What were the barriers for their entry? Where were the opportunities to retain women and promote them to supervisory roles? Ultimately, tackling the issues faced by women field staff was a springboard to more effectively understand and address them in the wider market system.

1. Conducted by WaterSHED and LINC, with funding provided by USAID’s Sustainable WASH Systems Partnership
2.  Network boundary criteria: the organization has a permanent presence in Phnom Penh; and at least one of the following: (i) mission focused on RuSH; (ii) at least 3 staff spending 50% or more of their time on RuSH activities; or (iii) more than $25,000 annual budget for RuSH activities
3. Perceived reliability, openness, and fairness of an organization are combined to develop a confidence score