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Women’s rights and access to water and sanitation in Delhi

April 24, 2012

Research focus

To improve water and sanitation services for women in New Delhi’s low-income communities by understanding the needs of women and girls in relation to basic service delivery, and facilitating better relationships between residents and their local governments.

The challenge

In low-income resettlement areas on the fringes of the city of New Delhi, India, poor women and girls face daily indignities, and even physical danger, while using toilets or while collecting water. Inadequate infrastructure, which is commonplace in low-income communities, deprives the poorest residents of safe access to water and sanitation.

The reality for thousands of these women and girls is filthy public toilets, with no privacy and no protection from insult or assault. They stand for hours each day in long lines at water holes, stand pipes, wells or contaminated streams to fill their buckets with water. They care for family members sickened by unclean water or unsanitary conditions, and they spend their meagre finances on medicine. Time spent on these water-related chores keeps women from earning wages or girls from going to school. And then there’s the sexual harassment and physical violence that these women and girls endure. Sexual assaults are, unfortunately, common at public toilets and in vacant plots or open fields where women must often go to relieve themselves.

The challenge is to motivate local governments to provide safe water and sanitation facilities for all city residents, including low-income communities, and to ensure that water and sanitation service delivery meet s the needs of not only men, but also women and girls.

The research

In 2009, Montreal-based Women in Cities International and Jagori of New Delhi, India, began a project to examine water and sanitation conditions for women in New Delhi’s low-income communities. The project, funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, focused on how inadequate services put women at risk – from both a health and from a safety perspective.

Researchers set out to adapt and test the Women’s Safety Audit to open up dialogue between local women and government officials to improve water and sanitation services. The Women’s Safety Audit is a tool for critically evaluating urban spaces and was developed by the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence against Women and Children (METRAC) in Toronto in 1989 to document the safety risks women face in their communities. This was the first time it was used to assess health and safety concerns related to poor water and sanitation delivery in low-income communities.

Researchers chose two communities for their project, Bawana and Bhalswa, which were established in recent years as New Delhi municipal officials moved inner-city slum dwellers to outlying regions. 

Researchers began with a rapid assessment and mapping of the communities’ infrastructure, facilities and services. They interviewed local women’s groups and service providers, and conducted focus groups and in-depth interviews with local residents.

Using the Women’s Safety Audit, researchers then engaged the communities’ poor women, government officials, and service providers in walks through various neighbourhoods. During these walks, the participants observed and recorded deficiencies and hazards in the local water and sanitation systems as well as the surrounding spaces. 

Researchers found problems in Bawana and Bhalswa that are repeated in low-income communities across urban India. When the slum dwellers were moved into the new communities, they were given short-term leases on small plots (between 12.5 and 18 square meters) and assurances by government of better services, such as water delivery and waste management. However, deficient infrastructure in the communities has resulted in non-existent or malfunctioning sewage systems and inadequate water supply. Some people have installed toilets and septic tanks on their properties. Others, with less secure tenure, less space or less income, must walk long distances for water, and use public toilets that are poorly maintained, often clogged and filthy with excrement, and lacking both privacy and proper security.



The project, completed in October 2011, identified three areas in which women can engage in dialogue with local governments to improve service delivery and create more secure urban environments.

The Women’s Safety Audit provided a good basis for discussion with government officials about water and sanitation services. Based on their adaptation and testing of the Safety Audit, project members published A Handbook on Women’s Safety Audits in Low-income Urban Neighbourhoods: A Focus on Essential Services, which outlines steps for conducting a safety audit in other communities.

The project also made use of India’s Right to Information Act to demand accountability from government officials when allocated funds failed to translate into improved services. Women in Bawana community also filed four “right to information” applications to find out who was responsible for maintenance of the community toilets and drains, as well as to get attendance records for drain cleaners and access to other government documents. In the summer of 2011, 300 people in the community signed a petition addressed to the local Member of the Legislative Assembly.

Researchers also analyzed New Delhi’s municipal budget. They compared the annual opportunity costs for women — that is, the wages they were unable to earn because of time spent on collecting water and accessing sanitation — with the New Delhi government’s annual expenditures for water and sanitation services. Researchers found that the government spent a mere 66 cents per person annually on water and $1.78 per person annually on sanitation. However, the related lost income for a woman in a low-income community was $50 annually. 
As a result of this project, poor women began to understand that they have a right to better water and sanitation services, and gained the courage to make demands. This is the first step in their longer struggle for better living conditions.
Women also began to discuss their other service needs – including food security, transportation, and energy. Inadequate water service is but one deprivation among many faced by low-income people in South Asia’s growing cities.
“This project highlights the complexity of our work,” said Carrie Mitchell, IDRC’s Senior Program Officer. “It also demonstrates how men and women experience the urban environment in different ways. Solutions designed without thoughtful consideration to the needs of all can end up causing serious harm to some.” 

Cecelia McGuire is a writer based in Perth, Ontario.

Photos: Women in Cities International

This article profiles a project supported by IDRC’s Climate Change and Water program, Women’s Rights and Access to Water and Sanitation in Asian Cities. You'll find more results from this project here.