Gender balance in the water and sanitation workforce

Themes: Gender Research Urban Sanitation Research Initiative Utilities WASH Water
Countries: Kenya Kenya-local

As the Technical Director at Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC), Eng. Lucy Njambi is responsible for the operation of Nairobi’s water and sewerage systems, serving around 4 million people.

She believes that it is important to involve women when developing services.

“It’s important to include women, as they are the ones who suffer most. They are the ones looking for water, carrying it home. It’s important to consult them when rolling out services to ensure that the facilities are accessible and used.”

In Kenya, more equitable gender representation in public leadership roles at the national and county level is now enshrined into law. Beyond the national and county level, women’s leadership in water and sanitation utilities is equally vital to improve services and it is encouraging to see leaders like Lucy in important technical roles.

Women and girls are commonly the most responsible for collecting water in households with off-site water supply and are the most affected by poor sanitation. Improving the design and maintenance of water and sanitation services, water distribution networks and the sector’s overarching policies will therefore have a disproportionately positive impact on women and girls.

To achieve this, there needs to be a better balance in the water and sanitation workforce – a crucial driver to make services truly gender-sensitive and inclusive and to ensure that no one is left behind.

Women collecting water from a kiosk in Lusaka. Photo credit: Gareth Bentley

According to a World Bank evaluation, water projects that included women were six to seven times more effective than those that did not.  In spite of the substantial human resource gap globally,  women make up less than 17 percent of the water, sanitation, and hygiene labour force, and the technical skills needed to reach universal access are in short supply.

Encouraging women to enter water- and sanitation-focused institutions could contribute enormously to bridging this gap, and ensure that policies, programmes and projects integrate the requirements of different groups.

Women who hold technical roles, for example, can lead sensitive discussions with women and girls, and help them to critically participate in the design of projects in their communities.

As a result, women in a number of countries are being encouraged and supported to enter the WASH workforce.

Having been in the sector for 29 years, Lucy is now seeing more and more women joining the field and notes that services are improving across the city.

“There are many women now in the water sector – technical and non-technical. There are now women engineers, chemists, sociologists, geologists.”

However, a lot more needs to be done: “I would like to see more women given scholarships to study water and sanitation. And more sensitisation for women to take technical jobs, especially at artisan and non-graduate level.”

New project on female leadership in urban sanitation

Are there more women taking on technical roles in Kenya, and what is the gender balance in Kenya’s water and sanitation institutions? Are women taking on leadership positions? If so, what kind of decisions are they making, and are those decisions different to those made by their male counterparts?

While representation of women in key decision-making roles is important, how those women act once they are in those roles is equally significant.

This is what WSUP will be trying to find out over the next year under a new research project under the Urban Sanitation Research Initiative.

The project will deliver an analysis of the barriers that prevent women in Kenya taking leadership roles in sanitation and aims to identify ways in which those barriers might be overcome.

We hope that this could have a significant influencing potential on Kenyan and international bodies, given the impetus to mainstream gender equity in the Sustainable Development Goals and national targets.

After all, SDG6 can only be achieved if the water, sanitation and hygiene needs of women and girls are fully met.