Challenging gender norms to achieve sustainable sanitation

06 September 2018

At the beginning of 2018, the CLTS Knowledge Hub based at the Institute of Development Studies released a call for applications for a desk-based study looking at ‘the other side of gender’. The idea came out of discussions with different sanitation and hygiene (WASH) actors who felt that despite gender relations being regarded as socially constructed power relations between men and women, boys and girls – gender in WASH discussions was often being reduced to the roles and experiences of women and sometimes only to menstrual hygiene management (MHM). Though these issues are extremely important we also wanted to explore the roles men and boys are currently playing, approaches and methods to stop them practicing open defecation (OD), how they can be better engaged, and the extent to which this engagement is supporting sustainable and transformative change in gender inequality within households, communities and within WASH programming and policy.

As women and girls are usually assigned the role of primary duty-bearers for water collection, toilet cleaning and care giving they are often the target group for sanitation and hygiene interventions. However, we wanted to gain a deeper understanding of power dynamics, relationships and roles and responsibility within households and communities and explore how men and boys can be more meaningfully engaged in WASH processes to achieve sustainable behaviour change, greater gender equality and improved outcomes for all.

One output of this process is the latest Frontiers of CLTS: Innovations and Insights ‘Engaging men and boys in sanitation and hygiene programmes‘ written collaboratively by a team from FH Designs, WaterAid and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council. The publication uses a gender lens to critically assess men as objects of change, as agents of change and partners for change. Drawing on these three themes, the authors propose ways that sanitation and hygiene programmes and processes can be strengthened to support changes in gender relations as well as sanitation and hygiene and move towards a focus on more gender transformative change.

At the beginning of the process, we had no idea what we would end up with, or who would be interested in engaging in this. We have been pleasantly surprised and encouraged to have so much interest and enthusiasm. It has been fantastic to hear about programmes (albeit very few) that are actively targeting men and boys in traditionally ‘female’ domains.

Major takeaways from this report include:

  • There is a trade-off between leveraging gender norms vs. challenging gender norms, and the sector is not yet fully acknowledging or balancing this tension. Campaigns that encourage men to change their behaviour often play on existing male stereotypes (e.g. their responsibility or duty to care for women in their household or wider family, images of tough or macho men). Whilst justified and used for their instrumental ‘appeal’ to some men, it can also reinforce unhelpful (and male supremacist) stereotypes and unequal power relations. There are very few examples of WASH campaigns that have a disrupting element in challenging gendered norms. The sector could collaborate and learn from gender specialists and campaigns like Promundo, He for She and MenCare that are promoting gender-transformative change by challenging instead of reinforcing gender norms/stereotypes.
  • Programmes that ignore the potential for the redistribution of unequal domestic care and responsibility can run the risk of increasing the burden on women – i.e. through the collection of water, additional carer responsibilities and cleaning of toilets.
  • Schemes and innovations to encourage engagement of men need reviewing with a gender lens. For example, practices which engage men and boys by offering them incentives (such as leadership roles), whilst excluding women from similar incentives, have the potential to strengthen sanitation and hygiene outcomes, but at the cost of creating or reaffirming male privilege.
  • Men and boys are not a homogenous group, they differ by, for example, class, caste, social group, sexuality, disability, ethnicity and reaching them requires different approaches. Different tactics will also be needed to engage boys, adolescents, men and older men. Understanding these differences can help enable more effective targeting of particular groups of men and boys.
  • MHM programming seems to be leading the way with men and boys engagement with examples from around the world of male champions helping to break barriers and taboos. It is important that this be done in an empowering way (men not speaking on behalf of women) such as through partnerships with women and women’s groups (at an MHM side-session at a WASH conference last week the issue was discussed by an all-male panel!).

Reaching the SDG sanitation target of sustainable safely managed sanitation for all by 2030 is a huge and complex challenge. Though unrealistic to expect sanitation and hygiene programmes to solve complex gender inequalities and entrenched structural problems they can be designed in ways the support change in gender relations. Programmes can be implemented, and strategies developed which, at the very least do not reinforce existing stereotypes, norms, roles and inequalities (the ‘do no harm’ principle), and there is much we can learn from other sectors on moving beyond this to challenging and breaking down these barriers. We need to explore how to design transformational approaches, which will involve confronting gender power issues – and acknowledging and assessing some of our current approaches in this light. Ultimately, it brings us back to our original reasoning for undertaking this study, that only when women and men are equally and meaningfully involved in sanitation and hygiene programs, can they result in positive lasting change.

This is the beginning of our exploration into this subject, and in the coming months we will be exploring with others potential ways and ideas to move the conversation and debate forward. We welcome any comments, contributions, suggestions, please email: [email protected]