ALBERTA, Canada — Women in Bangladesh play a crucial role in collecting water, often bearing the brunt of physical labor and household chores. Despite women and girls playing an instrumental role in water collection and facing disproportionate impacts of improper and unsafe sanitation facilities, they are vastly underrepresented in leadership positions within the water industry. Women often do not have the opportunity to participate in decision-making pertaining to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) as men overwhelmingly dominate these positions. In Bangladesh, only “20% of representatives in water management organizations” are women. To increase women’s employment and potential leadership in water governance, the World Bank has introduced the Bangladesh Rural WASH for Human Capital Development program. The water sector acts as a crucial source of employment for women and the lack of women in the industry is representative of immense untapped opportunity.
Inequality Within WASH
A multitude of complex, intersecting factors prevents women’s participation and employment in WASH. Barriers arguably begin in the education system, where a limited number of women graduate from STEM and TVET programs. Additionally, cultural norms in Bangladesh coupled with gendered expectations restrict women from even attempting to enter the workforce.
Because of these entrenched social norms, leadership positions in water governance often seem unattainable for women and many people label work in WASH as “dirty, dangerous and heavy.” Moreover, barriers such as the lack of gender-friendly and private sanitation facilities, a lack of menstrual products and overt discrimination in the workplace prevent women from remaining in or moving up to leadership roles in the WASH industry.
Why Women are Instrumental in Water Governance
Access to water and sanitation is still one of the most prevalent and pervasive global challenges. Remote and low-income areas often struggle to obtain access to water. To combat these inequalities, fresh perspectives are necessary to shape water availability in Bangladesh. Marginalized populations living in poverty, such as women, the elderly and people with disabilities, experience even more difficulties accessing water.
Bangladeshi women understand how households use and conserve water firsthand and also have the lived experience of attempting to properly manage a menstrual cycle without the necessary resources and facilities. By integrating women into the workforce and training them to take on leadership roles, new and necessary perspectives informed by experiences with inequality, intersectionality and marginalization can come to the table. Expanding the hiring pool to include women while dismantling barriers to leadership makes way for addressing the WASH sector’s evolving needs more efficiently.
Furthermore, both women and companies benefit from gaining access to better jobs in WASH. Evidence proves that gender-diverse companies outperform less diverse companies and several studies link greater diversity to an expanded skillset within the company.
The World Bank’s Role
The Bangladesh Rural WASH for Human Capital Development program creates space for women’s voices in WASH by “providing improved access to water, sanitation and hygiene services in 78 rural sub-districts in Bangladesh.” The World Bank will provide “microfinance loans and sanitation grants for investments” in WASH facilities and hopes to “shift WASH decision-making from men in town markets to women in homes.” The program will encourage female “representation and leadership in water management committees,” with the goal of “women chairing 30% of these committees.” Those chairing will receive training and support on how to use their voices to bring to light crucial WASH matters.
Finally, the program will support 150 female entrepreneurs to “market and sell soaps, disinfectants and menstrual hygiene products at household doorsteps,” further encouraging ideal menstrual hygiene practices for girls and women.
Overall, the World Bank’s efforts are integral in improving water governance in Bangladesh while empowering women whose voices often go unheard.
– Alysha Mohamed