This working paper explores how to support women’s involvement in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) enterprises in South East Asia. Despite high levels of entrepreneurial activity by women generally in the region, research has found that relatively few women are engaged as WASH entrepreneurs. Research by the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF-UTS) at the University of Technology Sydney, under the ‘Enterprise in WASH’ initiative, uncovered many barriers and enablers that impact on entrepreneurs’ ability to run successful and sustainable WASH businesses (Willetts et al. 2016). Yet there is little evidence as to how far these barriers and enablers are gendered – that is, if and how they are impacted by gender norms in particular contexts.
Across many sectors, female entrepreneurs contribute significantly to their communities and economies, despite having to overcome disadvantages linked to lower education levels than men, barriers to accessing finance, and social expectations around women’s role in the home. Levels of female entrepreneurship are also affected by the competing demands on women’s time beyond formal work, as well as their ability to travel, their limited access to technology, and unequal rights within legal frameworks.
The WASH sector in South East Asia and elsewhere is increasingly looking to local enterprises to provide products and services to boost access, with private sector involvement encouraged to fill gaps where government is unable or unwilling to provide services. For example, Vietnam has pro-private sector policies to attract Vietnamese and international businesses to the WASH sector. In other countries in the region, enterprises are involved in rural sanitation, in roles ranging from small piped-water system owners and operators to soap and hygiene product salespeople, and water kiosk operators.
To support women’s involvement in WASH entrepreneurial activities, it is first necessary to understand what challenges, opportunities, programmes and strategies are already documented in relation to women’s involvement in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).