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Published on: 08/03/2012

8th of March. On this day you always ask yourself: am I doing enough? Am I contributing all I can to create more equal gender relations in the world? Are we? It’s been a long time since my job was exclusively focused on gender equity- in water of course. I felt that all the stereotypes applied: having a gender expert was the excuse for others to not work on it, being the gender expert diminished my credibility to have an opinion on technical matters, in spite of being an engineer. These are two sides of the same coin of course. Now I’m no long a gender expert, but responsible for a WASH programme. Gender has become one of many priorities. Sure, we mainstream gender equity in our programmes, we have indicators, trainings, materials, but are we doing enough?

Gender in rural sanitation

We have our 1-2-3 successes in gender in rural sanitation, but no vast overwhelming change is happening, yet. We try to go beyond participation quota in WASH committees, too often that’s the main or only gender measure in the countries where we work. Integrating gender in sanitation also has to address practical gender needs, such as different perspectives of men and women on toilet technologies, the discussion about toilet maintenance and cleaning and who does this in the household especially if it involves carrying water.

Women generally have a higher priority for sanitation than men. They spend more time around the house and also experience more difficulty during open defecation, especially at night. However, building a toilet is a considerable investment for a rural household, both in time and money. Such decisions are jointly taken and the husband’s voice is often decisive. Through district wide sanitation movements and local government-led monitoring, having sanitation has also become an issue of status, pride and good citizenship, not only convenience in the areas where we work. In this way, we try to motivate men to invest in sanitation.

Hygiene promotion and men

Also in hygiene promotion gendered perceptions are everywhere, and often play a decisive role in behaviour change. In formative research about hand washing with soap in Nepal, Bhutan, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, we found for example that young women refrained from washing their hands with soap frequently for fear of getting remarks of being too fancy and fashionable. Children would say that they’d like to practice hygiene behaviours they learned at school, but that adults were conservative or not supportive. The male groups stated that they don’t care whether their family members try to persuade them to wash hands with soap, it’s not their priority. This degree of machismo was probably aggravated by having an all male focus group, but it reflects how gender identities influence individual behaviour as well social norms for hand washing with soap.

Social inclusion

To make sure that knowledge is shared, we made an inventory of the different gender and social inclusion “measures” that we do and also what more could be done in each of the different components of the programme. Social inclusion is there, because South Asia is characterised by deeply entrenched social inequalities related to religion, ethnic groups, caste, geography and/or wealth. Gender and social inclusion are closely interrelated in the South Asian context: it’s not only gender roles that determine access and influence, it’s equally important which men and women of what identities- caste, class, religion, ability etc- have better access and greater voice.  We thus ended up with over 60 different gender and social inclusion “measures” which would all be part of the programme in an ideal world. There will be more. The challenge is of course that no local government will ever adopt so many “measures”, let alone at scale. Also, not all are equally effective in all contexts; it requires intelligent use and adaptation of the ideas that will actually trigger change in a particular situation.

We sometimes feel that gender has become too much of a methodological question. Of course good methodologies and ideas are essential, but most of all we need to have the drive to make a change. We’ve seen that this is what is making the difference between teams that merely mainstream gender, and those that really achieve something through mainstreaming gender. That’s why I feel that it’s so important to be asking this question: am I doing all I can? At least once a year.

So do you? (to give your input hit the comment button!)

Antoinette Kome, SNV

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