Prof. Shakuntala C. Shettar, Department of Sociology Karnatak University, Dharwad


Prof. Shakuntala C. Shettar, Sociology of Sanitation: Incorporating Gender Issues in Sanitation|


Sociology of Sanitation: Background

Sociology of Sanitation is a sub branch of medical sociology that emerged in the United States during 1940’s. The discipline that investigates the social causes and consequences of health and illness was inspired by the health and sanitary reforms that took place in western society. It was well recognised that the relations between sociology and sanitation are extremely intimate. The individual is the essential element of the society, his social values depends largely upon his health. Good health is a pre-requisite for the adequate functioning of an individual or society. If our health is sound, we can engage in numerous types of activities. But if we are ill, distressed or injured, we may face the curtailment of our usual round of daily life and we may also become so pre-occupied with our state of health that other pursuits are secondary importance or quite meaningless. Therefore as Rene Du Bos (1981) explains “health can be defined as the ability to function”. While in turn his health is partly determined by the conditions which society imposes. Social factors play a critically important role in health. Social conditions and situations not only promote the possibility of illness and disability but they also enhance prospects for disease prevention and health maintenance. The disheartening status of mankind today is undoubtedly the result of the sanitary and social conditions of past ages and former generations. Clean food, adequate clean supply of water, sanitary schools, public baths, adequate housing are sanitary measures which are most effective in both sanitary and social results. Hence sanitation and sociology must go hand in hand in their effort to improve the race and now their relations are consciously and openly recognized.

Gender and Sanitation:

Gender refers to the culturally and socially constructed differences between males and females found in the meanings, beliefs, and practices associated with feminity and masculinity. Gender is important in defining what females and males are, what they should do, and what sorts of relations do or should exist between them. Gender organizes social relations in everyday life as well as in the major social structures. Sanitation refers to the principles and practices relating to the collection, removal or disposal of human excreta, household waste water and refuse as they impact upon people and the environment. Good sanitation includes appropriate health and hygiene awareness and behaviour, and acceptable, affordable and sustainable sanitation services. A lack of adequate sanitation or inadequately maintained or inappropriately designed systems can therefore constitute a range of pollution risks to the environment, especially the contamination of surface and ground water resources.

There are many gender issues in sanitation which need to be taken into account to improve development efforts. Many scholars deal with the different tasks men and women have, in fact all tasks related to sanitation are women’s duties. And sanitation issues also relate with gender ideology as a major obstacle, blocking change.

The following are the gender issues related to sanitation:

  1. Women are responsible for water in the house: Women and men usually have very different roles in water and sanitation activities, these differences are particularly pronounced in rural areas. Women are most often the users, providers, and managers of water in rural households and are the guardians of household hygiene. If a water system breaks down, women, not men, will most likely be the ones most affected, for they may have to travel further for water or use other means to meet the household’s water and sanitation needs. In case of drought or flood women remain responsible for water, and have to go even further to find it, or compromise by using less and less clean water, which influences the hygienic situation of the household.
  2. Women are responsible for hygiene at home: Even though the responsibility for cleanliness and hygiene should be with all, in reality it is the women of households and also of villages who are seen as the cleaners of the yard, the house, the kitchen, the bathroom and the toilet facilities. In these situations women are usually also responsible for getting water to the house, from far away, from less far, or from close by. Both the cleaning and the fetching of water take a lot of time. Women are responsible for the hygiene of themselves, their children and men folk; women have to do the work for all of them; and women suffer when they themselves have negative influence of bad hygiene, by getting ailments and diseases, but also if their children are ill, which means extra work for them. When their men folk and parents are ill that also gives them extra work, and more water to carry. So women are at the centre of hygiene for all. Either way, with or without diseases, it means a lot of work for them. Not all women are in the same position; the younger women in the household have more duties than the senior ones.
  3. Women are responsible for health of family, especially of children: Women, who are aware of the connection between the dirtiness and illness of family members, will do extra effort to keep the house, the kitchen, the food and the sanitary facilities clean. This is extra daily work, but when somebody is ill, women usually have the responsibility to care for him or her and that may be even more work.
  4. Women are responsible for the sick and for the elderly: Both men and women can get ill, but women are the caretakers perse. Hygiene becomes doubtly important when there are sick family members who could infect the others. Extra water is needed, and a lot of extra work needs to be done. Gender ideology prescribes that women do all this, there is no other real reason. The same is true for the elderly, with the difference that sick people in the house should be an exceptional situation, whilst to get old will happen to all who are healthy and lucky.
  5. Women menstruate, get pregnant and give birth: Women in their menstruating period are generally seen as unclean. They should clean their blood themselves, and that is one of the reasons that women always have to clean everything. Not according to reason, but according to the prevailing gender ideology. During the time of being pregnant, giving birth and breast feeding, the risk of getting infections is high. All women will try to avoid that by giving lots of attention and spending extra energy in hygiene. The direct relation with the quality and quantity of water available during that time, and the fact that she will not always be able to get it, makes her very vulnerable. Maternal mortality is directly related to hygiene, and hygiene to sanitary facilities and their cleanliness.
  6. Gender issues of toilets: In both rural and urban areas, women without toilets only go out to relieve themselves in the dark, because their gender ideology tells them that they cannot take the risk to be seen. They often face risks, by snakes, scorpions, or other creatures, but also by men. There are endless stories of women getting harassed and even raped when going out in dark. For men and children this is no problem, they can go anywhere and anytime. For them urinate or to defecate has no relation to sex at all, but women who go out in the daylight are seen as light or fallen women who ask for trouble. This is again gender ideology, and even discrimination. Furthermore to wait till the dark results in constipation and adapted diet and drinking habits, which give serious health problems. In densely populated urban areas, public toilets, if available, are to be cleaned by women only. They often cannot be locked, and here again women suffer from violence.

Why are gender issues important in sanitation sector ?

Gender issues are important in Sanitation Sector for the following four important reasons:

  1. For improving gender equality: Proper sanitation facilities with toilets help to achieve the social status of women. It is known that parents will not marry their daughter to a household without toilet. The economic value of clean sanitation facilities ensure women fewer days of illness and therefore more days to work and more income: less unpaid work in caring for the sick, daughters with higher education so with more income.
  2. Improving women’s health and livelihood: Proper sanitation facilities are essential for fewer infections for women, for less sexual harassment, for security and physical dignity, sanitation will empower poor women. Time savings also have a considerable impact on women’s livelihood. There is a economic benefits of having water close to home so that the saved time can be used to generate some income.
  3. Securing good sanitary facilities to meet family needs has direct bearing not only on women’s health but also on their access to education and employment: In rural areas fetching water takes more time which keeps girls out of school and limits the economic productivity of women. Globally, more than one in five girls of primary school age are not in school, this is impart attributable to a lack of clean water and sanitation facilities available at the community level and schools. Girls like their mothers must often walk miles to fetch the daily water supply. Girls who have reached menstrual age may also be deterred from school by inadequate sanitation in public places. Simple measures such as providing schools with water and latrines, and promoting hygiene education in the classroom can enable girls to get an education.
  4. The health of families: Improved sanitation facilities with regular and safe water supply, good latrine facilities enhance not only the health of women, but also the health of entire family. The time saved from fetching water far from places can be best used to maintain the health of the family members. In this connection gender differences is of particular importance with regard to hygiene and sanitation initiates and gender balanced approaches should be encouraged in plans and structures for implementation. Access to adequate sanitary latrines is a matter of security, privacy and human dignity, particularly for women. Access to adequate and clean, near water is a matter of women’s health, their access to education, employment, livelihood and their empowerment.

Keeping this in mind the following initiatives should be taken to improve sanitation programmes:

  1. At the national government level, line ministries, such as the ministries of health, water resources and social services are key actors and have important roles to play in ensuring that sanitation, hygiene promotion education and gender are incorporated into water resources and health policies. The line ministries should be motivated and willing to address gender in sanitation policies and legal frameworks.
  2. At the community level, hygiene and sanitation are considered a women’s issue, but they impact on both genders. Yet societal barriers continually restrict women’s involvement in decisions regarding sanitation improvement programmes. Thus, it is important that sanitation and hygiene promotion and education are perceived as a concern of women, men and children and not only of women. Separate communication channels, materials, and approaches have to be developed to reach out to men and boys. It is also important to target community leaders for gender sensitisation; this would facilitate mainstreaming gender in sanitation and hygiene promotional activities.
  3. Attention and funds should be focused on sanitation and hygiene in schools, in order to reduce transmission of water-related diseases and implement hygiene and health education. School children are key change agents because they can influence their parents and will be tomorrow’s adults. When they learn sanitation-related behaviours, such as hand washing, they can bring about change in their families and communities, leading to health improvements and higher school attendance of girls. It is critical that school sanitation and hygiene programmes address both boys and girls.
  4. One problem that has been observed is that the latrine designs, especially for primary and secondary schools, are mainly prepared by male masons. The tendency therefore has been to construct latrines which are not sensitive to the special needs of girls. This has resulted in girls staying away from schools when they are menstruating, even when their schools have latrines. In the case of small boys too, the urinals are often too high. Moreover, it is important that separate sanitary latrines are constructed for boys, in order to prevent boys from taking over the latrines that are meant for the girls. And toilet blocks for girls and boys should not be constructed next to each other. Sanitation design needs to be sensitive to physically challenged girls and boys too. In India, a survey carried out among school children revealed that about half the ailments found were related to unsanitary conditions and lack of personal hygiene (UNICEF and IRC, 1998).

Gender Sensitive Sanitation Programmes in Karnataka

More than 94% of rural women in Karnataka do not use sanitary napkins, according to a survey conducted in 2009. The Gulbarga Zilla Pancahyat and a few non-governmental organizations have initiated a pilot project to supply low-cost-sanitary napkins to women in six Gram Panchayats of the district under programme called ‘Sakhi’.


  1. Gender aspects of water and sanitation
  2. Gender, Sanitation and Hygiene…./chapter3.4_july%2006doc
  3. A gender approach to sanitation, for empowerment of women, men and children www.GenderandWaterAlliance.JokeMuylwijk2006.forSACOSAN
  4. Gender and sanitation www.
  5. Gender in Water and Sanitation
  6. Gender, Water, and Sanitation
  7. Sanitation and Sociology
  8. Sanitation: A woman’s issue’sissue.pdf


Leave a reply