WASH: for her, it’s the big issue

Water may seem an unusual topic to start a discussion on gender issues. It’s not when you consider how much it matters in the lives of women and adolescent girls in the developing world.

Many spend hours of their day fetching water, in some cases risking harassment and sexual assault. This is also the case when using public toilet facilities. If no toilet is available at the home, they may resort to open defecation. Even school attendance by girls is lower because there are no separate toilet facilities for boys and girls or menstrual hygiene facilities. Yet, although they suffer the most, their voices matter the least.

To tackle this injustice, Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) Research Director Professor Juliet Willetts and her team launched a research project titled ‘Making the Invisible Visible’. It has turned the global dialogue on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions upside down.

Most importantly, the project, amongst other evidence and advocacy efforts, has sparked a series of government funding for aid programs and investment in water and sanitation programming, including gender participation goals.

Although Prof Willetts is a trained engineer, she realised soon that a traditional engineering career was not her calling. Instead, she turned to volunteering work in India, a place which sparked her commitment to social justice and change.

“When I was in year 7 at high school, I travelled to India with my family and I can still picture the view from our hotel room. I could see a slum, and I could see these people with bright smiles living in what looked to me like a completely despairing situation.

“It raised a lot of questions for me – especially questions on happiness and justice around the world, and what contribution I want to make. From there it became my mission,” she remembers.

Since then, she has recognised that she can use her own privilege and skills to serve a much greater community than just her own Prof Willetts continues to dedicate her career to research that supports better and more WASH initiatives around the globe, for governments and civil society organisations.

“The funding and aid that has come through as a result of our collaborative research and advocacy efforts is significant, and many men, women and children now have access to clean water. Their lives have completely changed, and it makes me proud to know I played a small part in making this happen.”

Banner image: Gender impact assessment in Vietnam. Photo is courtesy of the Institute for Sustainable Futures.

Case study

The Problem

Having no access to basic sanitation and safe water is an acute problem in many parts of the world. Women and girls disproportionately bear the burden of domestic duties and fetching water.

The Response

A team of UTS researchers collaborated with the International Women’s Development Agency to open a discussion about gender inequality and participation in WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) projects.

What helped accomplish this?

Using a strength-based approach, the researchers worked with communities in Fiji and Vanuatu. They demonstrated the key role of women in water and sanitation, and the benefits of involving them in decision making.

What has changed as a result?

The research has led to changed practices amongst NGOs, and played an important role in securing further research funding and large-scale programming in this area.


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