Photo by Neha Mungekar - 'She Makes a Point', Water Committee Meeting, Makanda Zambia - WIN Photo Competition 2019

Declarations on gender equality won’t cut it

Water and sanitation sector organisations need real commitment and increased capacity for gender equality and social inclusion

This is the second post in a series focusing on the need and practicalities of mainstreaming gender equality and social inclusion in water and sanitation from an integrity perspective. The first post in the series dealt with women’s visibility on public platforms and in leadership positions To contribute to the discussion or to share some insight from your work, contact us at rsands[at] 


The negative consequences of a lack basic water and sanitation services are often felt most strongly by women and marginalised groups. Inadequate access to water severely affects women’s development and participation in society, impacting their nutrition, health and life expectancy. In 80% of households with water shortages, women and girls are responsible for water collection. This exposes them to a range of risks – particularly gender-based violence – including sextortion, a gendered form of corruption in which sex, rather than money, is the currency of the bribe. The time dedicated to ensuring household water supply also hinders women’s ability to engage productively in other parts of life, including attending school and earning an income.

Ultimately, fairness and impartiality are undermined, resulting in a failure of integrity. By not acknowledging or responding to the water and sanitation needs and priorities of half of the population, we will not reach SDG6 and remain far from SDG5.

So what can be done, and how can we better prioritise gender equality? Whether carrying out service delivery or shaping policy, institutions and sector organisations can do a lot from the inside out, building a culture of integrity through institutional commitment and capacity building for gender equality and social inclusion. This is a first step towards ensuring equitable access to water and sanitation for all.


Showing commitment at the top

Making sure that women have equal opportunities to access leadership positions can help to lay the groundwork for the right structural changes to occur. In Latin America, for example, several WIN partners can now count women amongst the top leadership positions in their organisations. In Pakistan, a woman is for the first time leading the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB), the city utility in charge of delivering water and sanitation to over 16 million residents. As of early 2022, women held top jobs in a number of top private water sector companies, notably in the UK where all but one of the top jobs in the UK’s FTSE-listed water companies is held by women.

But empowered individuals at the top, whether they be women or men, does not necessarily mean that institutional transformation or gender-sensitive delivery will follow. Leadership, if pledging to remaining accountable to the populations they serve, must take specific steps to institutionalise gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) beyond their own positioning and into the fabric of their organisation and its delivery programme, with clear goals, both internal and external.

 “Setting gender equality as a corporate goal enables leadership to plan and commit the time and resources needed to change organizational culture and achieve gender equality and inclusion. Goal
setting also allows organizations to take a systematic approach, benchmark progress, and establish
longer-term plans for sustained impact.”
USAID Goal Setting Guide, p.1


Responsive staffing and programming: a worthwhile investment

To operationalise a commitment to GESI, supportive processes and systems are indispensable. Family-friendly policies, a cooperative workplace environment and work facilities which cater to the needs of women and marginalised groups can go a long way in attracting and retaining a more diverse workforce, as highlighted in the report Women in Water Utilities: Breaking Barriers. Water sector entities can also take a conscious decision to promote gender equality by, for example, supporting women-owned businesses through their supply chains and procurement practices, and through understanding and responding to the different water and sanitation needs of women and men.

It is beneficial: there is mounting evidence that gender equality is a boon to societies, economies and enterprises. Findings suggest that enterprises with equal employment opportunity policies and gender-inclusive cultures are around 60% more likely to have improved profits, productivity and to experience benefits such as enhanced reputation, greater ease in attracting and retaining talent, and greater creativity and innovation.

Likewise, the involvement of other marginalised groups ought not be forgotten. By becoming more diverse, businesses can better reflect their customer base and be more responsive to customer needs. Research by McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile of ethnic and cultural diversity were 36% more likely to outperform their peers on profitability, whereas companies in the bottom quartile were 27% more likely to underperform the industry average.

In the water sector, the Global Water Partnership has demonstrated that inclusive water programmes and policies pay off, because they lead to greater economic, environmental and social sustainability. Involving women and marginalised groups in the design, operation, and maintenance of water supply systems can increase customer satisfaction through more user-friendly designs adjusted to specific needs. Studies suggest that water projects were six to seven times more effective when women were involved than when they were not.


Capacity and systems against discrimination and harassment

Effectively addressing and mitigating sexual harassment, both inside and outside the workplace, is also key. To do so is a commitment to upholding the dignity, safety, equality, and integrity of all employees and clients. Organisations need to have clear policies and procedures for staff expectations and how they respond to internal and external cases, act promptly when situations arise, treat all complaints seriously, provide adequate support and redress mechanisms for those who file complaints and train all relevant staff and those in leadership positions on sexual harassment.

In addition, organisations must pay specific attention and work to mitigate the risk of sextortion through public awareness campaigns, staff training, appropriate disciplinary procedures, and whistle-blowing mechanisms. As an issue that appears wherever those entrusted with power use such power over another’s body, sextortion can occur both within an organisation (e.g. a manager asking for a sexual bribe in exchange for giving someone a job), or externally (e.g. field staff demanding a sexual favour from a customer in exchange for water access, a favourable meter reading or a discount).


A checklist for getting started

With institutional commitment and clear objectives, key mechanisms such as a gender analysis, gender-inclusive stakeholder consultations, the development of gender-responsive policies and budgets or gender-sensitive monitoring and evaluation can follow.

A few questions can guide the formulation of these processes:

  • Assess the status quo:
    • Does your organisation have a strategy that outlines leaders’ responsibility to deliver on gender equality? Having dedicated gender focal points is a good practice, but these do not replace the critical role of leaders in the organisation to advance the gender equality agenda.
    • Are women and marginalised groups adequately represented in your organisation, and in programme implementation? The ‘nothing about them without them’ approach can serve as a useful reminder about the need for meaningful participation throughout the project cycle. Inquire who is marginalised in a given context, and involve these groups in consultations and decision-making opportunities.
    • Are there dedicated resources available for GESI? Institutional capacity to carry out GESI may need to be strengthened through training, dedicated expertise, and outreach activities. Without a budget or the proper allocation of resources to gender mainstreaming, commitments can be side-tracked by other priorities.
    • How are current policies being implemented? Maybe your organisation already has gender equality and inclusion policies in place. Nevertheless, it is good practice to critically assess how these stated goals are being achieved and where there is room for improvement. Are there accountability mechanisms in place to ensure that commitments on paper are being upheld in practice?
  • Plan ahead:
    • Develop KPIs which include gender equality and inclusion expectations
    • Make a list of incentives and drivers that make the case for GESI to be integrated at the organisational level. Examples can include: Meeting CSR objectives; Better access to funding and donor relationships; Enhancing your organisation’s external reputation and strengthening community relationships; Reaching the most vulnerable households through service delivery
    • Assess how your company’s attraction, recruitment, retention and advancement procedures work for women and marginalised groups
    • Establish anti-harassment policies and reliable, confidential complaint processes
    • Ensure equitable pay independent of gender and other attributes
    • Increase training opportunities
    • Assess other integrity-related risks (e.g. conflicts of interest, internal misreporting, poor complaint mechanisms) and how they may exacerbate gender inequalities


Organisational commitment to mainstreaming gender equality and inclusion is a critical first step to ensure availability and the sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. To do this with integrity means going beyond policies and symbolic gestures. It requires real commitment and putting in place tangible processes and capacities to translate promises into concrete measures. Involving women and marginalised groups cannot be neglected in this process.  


More useful resources:

A great many tools and other resources are at the disposal of utilities and water sector organisations to support their critical work on GESI, including these Best Practices Framework for Male-dominated Industries and USAID’s a guide to support organisational goal setting for gender equality and inclusion.  We’re keen to hear your suggestions for more resources, do share!

What can you do?

You can take simple steps to launch an integrity change process. Here are the tools to help you.

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