Issue 60 - Article 11

Violence, gender and WASH: a practitioners' toolkit Making water, sanitation and hygiene safer through improved programming

February 12, 2014
Sarah House, Suzanne Ferron, Marni Sommer and Sue Cavill
WeCan Campaign poster used in an IDP camp in Batticoloa, Sri Lanka to help respond to and prevent violence against women

Poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), whilst not the root cause of violence, can exacerbate the vulnerability of women and girls to violence. Men and boys, people of other gender or sexual identities or other marginalised groups can also sometimes be at risk. As WASH practitioners working in humanitarian and development contexts, we are often aware of the anecdotal but regular examples of incidents of violence in relation to WASH. However, we often do not appreciate the scale of the problem, why it happens or what, if anything, we can or should do about it. In order to better understand and respond to issues related to violence, including gender-based violence (GBV), WaterAid, through the SHARE Consortium, The Sanitation and Hygiene Applied Research for Equity (SHARE) Consortium is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  has undertaken research to document the connections between violence and WASH, and develop practical guidance on what the sector can do better. The result is a WASH practitioners’ toolkit aimed at building the capacity of those working in a range of humanitarian and development contexts.

Violence linked to WASH

Vulnerability to violence can have a significant impact on people’s access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene and vice versa. In both urban and rural contexts, girls and women frequently face harassment when defecating in the open. They may delay drinking and eating in order to wait until nightfall to relieve themselves because of feelings of shame and risks to their dignity if they are seen defecating in the daylight. Given taboos around defecation and menstruation, and the frequent lack of privacy at WASH facilities in internally displaced or refugee camps, women and girls may decide to use the toilet or bathing units under cover of darkness. Walking to remote locations to collect water for drinking, cooking or laundry or using WASH facilities after dark puts women and girls at risk of harassment, sexual assault and rape. Lack of access to water may also contribute to tensions between husband and wife, particularly in water-scarce or drought-affected areas, and this can lead to violence. Where women and children have to queue for extended periods at water points, this can lead to fights with other service users, particularly where refugees or other displaced people are accessing water previously only used by the host community. Women and children are often the target of these conflicts because it is usually their responsibility to collect water. In conflict situations, men and boys may also be vulnerable to abduction or murder when accessing water points outside the boundaries of a camp, with boys also vulnerable to rape.

house-boxA report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) noted that, between October 2004 and February 2005, MSF health clinics in West Darfur treated 297 rape victims, 99% of whom were women. Médecins Sans Frontières Amsterdam, The Crushing Burden of Rape: Sexual Violence in Darfur, Briefing Paper, 8 March 2005.  Almost 90% said that their rape had occurred outside a populated village, and 82% were raped while pursuing ordinary daily activities, such as searching for firewood or thatch, working in their fields, fetching water from river beds or travelling to the market. The implications of harassment and rape can result in fear and stress, which can undermine mental health; lead women to be accused of being unfaithful by their husbands, being disowned by families or mocked by other community members; and cause unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections. Cases have been documented in the Democratic Republic of Congo of girls being raped and gang raped when going to practice open defecation or collecting water, including cases resulting in fistula. A. O. Longombe, K. M. Claude and J. Ruminjo, ‘Fistula and Traumatic Genital Injury from Sexual Violence in a Conflict Setting in Eastern Congo: Case Studies’, Reproductive Health Matters, 16(31).

As WASH programmes seek to improve gender equality in projects, women may take on what are perceived to be traditionally male roles in the WASH sector, such as being part of a WASH Committee or accepting a paid job (e.g. pump mechanic). As a result, they may face emotional (psychological) abuse, such as being excluded from relevant meetings, being bullied or victimised or becoming the subject of scorn from other community members. They may even face physical violence.

Violence and WASH staff

Staff within WASH organisations may also be the perpetrators of violence, or may face violence because of their gender. In some contexts, female professionals training for or working in the WASH sector may need to fend off sexual advances that carry the promise of better grades, jobs or promotion. Where gender power differences are particularly stark, women may have to deal with their views not being respected, being ignored or actively undermined, or if their work is complimented by a male colleague or line manager, women may be accused of having a sexual liaison. At the other end of the spectrum, staff members who control the distribution of non-food items and the use of WASH facilities may abuse their power by demanding sexual favours from vulnerable individuals.

Challenges in reducing vulnerabilities to violence linked to WASH

Wider societal norms, practices and power relations intersect with the work that we do in sanitation, water and hygiene. WASH professionals working with communities may find people confiding in them and reporting abuse, even though they are not protection or GBV specialists. Therefore, as professionals, it is critical for us to at least understand the basics of such power dynamics, how they can contribute to violence, what we can do to minimise vulnerabilities and who can help when incidents do occur.

Considering the link between violence and WASH is an important part of quality WASH programming. There are, however, challenges in responding to these issues:

  • Lack of knowledge among WASH sector professionals about the problem, what their responsibilities are and what practical actions they can take.
  • Concerns about engaging in discussions with communities on issues relating to violence, including GBV, because of the sensitivity of the subject and concerns over the community’s reaction.
  • The limited number of women professionals working in the WASH sector (this has been improving, but parity is still a long way off ). Having female and male staff in decision-making posts and working at community level helps (although does not guarantee) that male and female concerns, perspectives and priorities will be considered and integrated into programme design. On sensitive issues such as GBV, it is more likely that people will be prepared to speak with someone of the same gender, and in some contexts, particularly where seclusion is practiced, it may not be culturally acceptable for women and men to meet. Male-only field teams limit the possibility that violence towards women and girls will be revealed or discussed.
  • Concerns over how to ensure that any response to incidents of violence does not make the situation worse, including how to ensure the ethical handling of information.
  • Limited (if any) monitoring of violent incidents or safety concerns related to WASH, and limited documentation of successful approaches. Because of this we are still working mainly on promising approaches that have the potential to reduce violence.

As well as strengthening links between WASH and protection actors, there are a range of other practical ways that WASH actors can respond to violence, many of which simply require some slight modifications to standard tools already used by the sector. For example, it may involve incorporating safety concerns into transect walks or undertaking safety audits while planning projects; involving adolescent girls, as a particularly vulnerable group, in project design; using role play to encourage communities to consider and design their own strategies for minimising risks; and establishing feedback mechanisms to ensure that people feel safe when reporting problems. Well-articulated institutional commitments to take this issue seriously, to develop protection policies and codes of conduct that are upheld and enforced, to integrate the issue into WASH-related policies, to train and support staff and to integrate the issue into monitoring and learning processes are all essential steps. Such procedures need to ensure that beneficiaries are protected, that staff who may be facing violence within the workplace feel able to report bullying, harassment and assault and that support will be provided.

Violence, gender and WASH: a practitioner’s toolkit

The practitioner’s toolkit Sarah House, Suzanne Ferron, Marni Sommer and Sue Cavill, Violence, Gender and WASH: A Practitioner’s Toolkit – Making Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Safer through Improved Programming and Services, WaterAid/SHARE, 2014.  provides guidance on making WASH safer through improving programming and services. It is designed to complement existing materials, including the cross-sectoral materials developed by the Inter-Agency Steering Committee (IASC) GBV Area of Responsibility (some of which are currently being updated), and gender mainstreaming materials. The intention is to raise awareness of violence related to WASH, and what WASH practitioners should be doing to reduce vulnerabilities. The toolkit assumes that most professionals working in the WASH sector are not protection or GBV specialists, and may lack confidence in raising these issues. At the same time, it is hoped that the toolkit will help other professionals, including those working on GBV, protection, health and education, to understand how poorly designed and located WASH interventions can increase people’s vulnerability to violence.

house-figAlthough much of the violence related to WASH is rooted in unequal power relations between genders, the scope of the toolkit has been defined more broadly as ‘violence’ rather than GBV, to allow for violence that occurs because of a person’s social grouping, or that occurs between people of the same gender. The toolkit has been developed for use in both humanitarian and development contexts, as the distinction between the two is often artificial, contexts can change and there is valuable cross-contextual learning on this topic from both humanitarian and development sub-sectors.

The toolkit consists of four Briefing Notes, a checklist of actions based on the ten key principles in Figure 1 and a range of tools including case studies of good practice in the WASH sector that have the potential to reduce violence:

  • Briefing Note 1: About the toolkit and how to use it.
  • Briefing Note 2: What gender-based violence linked to WASH can look like, why we should be considering it and examples of good programming.
  • Briefing Note 3: Institutional commitment and staff capacity, codes of conduct, policies, staff training, monitoring, financing and what to do if you or your colleagues experience violence.
  • Briefing Note 4: Understanding the protection sector, examples of partnerships between WASH and the protection sector and what to do if faced with violence in communities.

house-box-2The materials also include videos, scenarios for training and tools for use with communities, key extracts from international human rights instruments and a folder of additional supporting information. The toolkit will be freely available electronically for any actor working in humanitarian, development or transitional contexts. To access the materials please send an email to

Sarah House and Suzanne Ferron are independent consultants. Dr Marni Sommer is an Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences in the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, and Dr Sue Cavill is the SHARE Research Manager for WaterAid. The authors would like to thank the Programme de Promotion des Soins de Santé Primaires, Oxfam-GB, Oxfam-Intermon, the Women’s Refugee Commission and the WeCan Campaign for sharing the case studies of good practice described in this article.

Image References

Box 1

4. Programme de Promotion des Soins de Santé Primaires and Tearfund, Hope Out of Conflict – How Sanitation Plays a Vital Role in Protecting Women and Children from Sexual Violence in DRC, 2011; and personal communication with Deogratias Mwaka, 8 May 2013.
5. Personal communication, Rachel Hastie, Oxfam, 2013.
6. Personal communication, Pilar Duch and Simone Carter, Oxfam-Intermon.

Box 2

7. S. Schulte and Z. Rizvi, In Search of Safety & Solutions: Somali Refugee Adolescent Girls at Sheder and Aw Barre Camps, Ethiopia, Women’s Refugee Commission, 2012.


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