Bangladeshi Women’s Leadership in Water Governance

ALBERTA, Canada – In Bangladesh, women play a crucial role in collecting water, often bearing the brunt of physical labor and household chores. Although women and girls play a critical role in collecting water and face the disproportionate impacts of inappropriate and unsafe sanitation facilities, they are vastly under-represented in management positions within the water industry. Women often do not have the opportunity to participate in decision-making regarding water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) because men overwhelmingly dominate these positions. In Bangladesh, only “20% of representatives in water management organizations ”are women. To increase women’s employment and their potential leadership in water governance, the World Bank launched the Bangladesh Rural WASH program for human capital development. 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 opportunities.

Inequality in WASH

A multitude of complex and intersecting factors prevents the participation of women and employment in WASH. The barriers probably start in the education system, where a limited number of women have graduated from STEM and TVET programs. Additionally, cultural norms in Bangladesh coupled with gender expectations prevent women from even attempting to enter the workforce.

Because of these entrenched social norms, leadership positions in water governance often seem inaccessible to women, and many people characterize work in WASH as “dirty, dangerous and cumbersome”. In addition, obstacles such as the lack of gender-sensitive and private sanitation sanitation facilities, a lack of menstrual products, and overt discrimination in the workplace prevent women from staying in or accessing leadership positions in the WASH industry.

Why women play a key role in water governance

Access to water and sanitation remains one of the most pervasive and pervasive global challenges. Remote and low-income areas often have difficulty accessing water. To tackle these inequalities, new perspectives are needed to shape water availability in Bangladesh. Marginalized populations living in poverty, like women, the elderly and the disabled face even more difficulties in accessing water.

Bangladeshi women directly understand how households use and conserve water and also have the lived experience of trying 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, necessary new perspectives informed by experiences of inequality, intersectionality and marginalization can arise. Expanding the hiring pool to include women while removing barriers to leadership makes it possible to respond more effectively to the changing needs of the WASH sector.

In addition, women and businesses benefit from access to better jobs in WASH. Evidence shows that mixed companies outperform less diverse companies, and several studies link greater diversity to an expanded skill set within the company.

The role of the World Bank

The Bangladesh Rural WASH Program for Human Capital Development creates space for women’s voice in WASH by “providing better access to water, sanitation and hygiene services in 78 rural sub-districts of 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 urban markets to women in households”. The program will encourage “the representation and leadership of women in water management committees”, with the objective that “women chair 30% of these committees”. Chairs will receive training and support on how to use their voice to highlight critical WASH issues.

Finally, the program will help 150 women entrepreneurs to “market and sell soaps, disinfectants and menstrual hygiene products at household doors”, further encouraging ideal menstrual hygiene practices for girls and women.

Overall, the World Bank’s efforts are integral to improving water governance in Bangladesh while empowering women whose voices are often not heard.

– Alysha Mohamed
Photo: Flickr

Mara R. Wilmoth