The price of water: violence and harassment against women and girls

Article: 14.03.24, Uganda, Nepal and Bangladesh

It is no secret that clean drinking water and a safe toilet - official human rights - are still not a given for much of the world's population. Much less known is that this leads to women and girls being exposed to (sexual) violence and harassment worldwide.

Photo: Shirish Bajracharya

Warning: this article contains content on (sexual) violence

The unequal position of women and girls and increasing water scarcity due to climate change are leading to violence against women, including sextortion. This is according to recent qualitative research on gender-related violence commissioned by Simavi in Uganda, Nepal and Bangladesh. Sextortion, or sex for water, is the practice of women being forced to use sex to get access to drinking water. This is something Simavi - together with ANEW and WIN - has already been raising the alarm about in recent years, including with the Stop Sex for Water campaign. But other forms of insecurity around fetching water and using communal toilets also have a huge impact on women and girls and their ability to develop, research shows.

The Simavi report ‘Water and sanitation-related violence. The experiences of women and girls in Bangladesh, Nepal and Uganda’ shows how widespread and at the same time invisible the violence is that women and girls face in relation to water and sanitation. Quantitative research is scarce and even qualitative research such as this research project by Simavi requires great care because of the shame and taboos surrounding issues such as hygiene, menstruation and sexual violence. In this article, we list some key factors that not only make it difficult for women to exercise their rights to water and sanitation, but also put their safety and integrity at risk.

Girls work together to get to the toilet because of the lack of a proper lock on the door.

Shaming women and girls

Taboos and shame not only make it difficult to properly assess the extent of the problem, but also hinder the use of water and sanitation facilities for women and girls.

In Bangladesh and Nepal, for instance, women and girls are quite often embarrassed or ridiculed when bathing, or while walking home in wet clothes. They reported being afraid of being watched if they use the tap outside their homes to wash. Girls going to school were mocked and shamed if menstrual blood leaked through their clothes. Something that is also known to occur in Kenya, Ethiopia and Zambia, and in urban South Africa.

Insecurity at water points and schools

During water fetching itself, women and girls do not feel safe. Ugandan adolescent girls experienced physical violence combined with sexual harassment while fetching water at collection sites.

In Nepal and Uganda, survey participants told about physical and psychological violence and sexual harassment in schools. For example, boys peeped through holes in toilet doors and washrooms of Ugandan schoolgirls. In Nepal, girls said that school toilets often had small holes in the doors to let in light. Using these to peek inside made it more difficult for girls to feel safe at school. Girls reported having to work together to get to the toilet because of the lack of a proper lock on the door. Incidents were reported where boys deliberately damaged girls' washrooms and toilets by making holes in the structures.

Photo: Emmanuel Museruka

Fear of rape

In Uganda, women and girls told of being afraid of rape while using communal sanitation facilities or while fetching water, especially when it was dark. And examples were given of actual rapes in the past. For example in Uganda: 'In the nearby village, a girl went to the well which was far away. Two men took her to the forest and took turns raping her.'

This also happens in urban settings: 'Last month, there was a girl. They caught her fetching water on the road and raped her. It was around seven in the evening.' A respondent from Nepal said he knew a schoolgirl had been raped while using a public toilet: 'The condition of the school toilet was not good. She was raped when she went to a toilet outside the school.' As a result, girls and women no longer dare to fetch water or use the toilet at night. Or only in groups or accompanied. This has also been previously reported in countries such as Ethiopia, South Africa, India, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Cameroon.

Likelihood of domestic violence

Women in all the countries where Simavi conducted research reported being verbally abused by their husbands and accused of neglecting household chores or infidelity, due to the long time they are forced to spend fetching water and the long wait at water points. Previous studies in Kenya and Ethiopia also revealed this additional psychological stress for women due to domestic violence after fetching water.

Sextortion: water in exchange for sex

Scarcity or a high price for water in the form of time or money force some Ugandan women and girls to exchange sexual favours to gain access to water. In this form of sextortion, persons with authority at wells abuse their power to extract bribes in the form of sexual favours instead of receiving money for water. 'Here people pay for water per month, so if you don't pay you have to beg. If the man is interested in the woman, he gives her free water and starts demanding other things.' Similar situations were previously reported in urban Malawi Chipetas, in rural Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, and in Bangladesh.

Watch the 'Dit is de druppel' campaign video, in which sextortion is further explained with personal stories. Warning: this video contains content on (sexual) violence.

Exclusion from decision-making

Exclusion of women and girls when it comes to participating in water committees and in decision-making on water is also widespread. Even in a country like Bangladesh where it is laid down by law that women must be involved in decision-making, this rarely appears to be the case in practice. 'Even if a woman is appointed to a WASH committee, she is rarely involved in decision-making. When committee members visit the city office to discuss water and sanitation, they do not invite her to join them.'

In Nepal, women have had similar experiences. 'What happens is that a group of men select people and form a committee. They just name a random woman from the village as treasurer, for example. They don't think it's important to invite her, so they just ignore her. Then they come to her house and ask her to sign this or that. The woman obeys them and signs without knowing what it is about because they are big men in the village.' Also in Uganda, an interviewee says: 'The experience of women is that when they plan to build a water source they don't involve the women - they just call on men to participate.'

Unacceptable violation of right to water and sanitation

The unequal position of women and girls, inadequate safe facilities and lack of empowerment hamper women and girls' access to water and sanitation, and thus their opportunities for development. On top of this, women and girls have to put their safety and integrity at risk, regularly face violence or are even forced to have sex in exchange for water. This is an unacceptable violation of the right to water and sanitation and must be addressed globally. To begin with, by governments who must take responsibility in this.

Not only is it important to ensure better water and toilet facilities, and to address violence against women and girls, but there also needs to be more focus on involving women and girls in decision-making on water and sanitation. This calls for initiatives that support women in this and help them enforce that their input is actually heard.

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