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Struggling for safe access to water and sanitation

February 20, 2013

Women who were relocated from slums in central New Delhi to the city’s desolate periphery face daily indignities and danger as they collect water or access public toilets. Using the Women’s Safety Audit developed in Canada, they have begun to realize their rights and demand better, safer services.

When slums on prime land in New Delhi were cleared a decade ago, tens of thousands of people were moved to Bawana and Bhalswa Relocation Colonies on the city’s northern edge. They received short-term leases on small plots and promises of a better life.

But the reality has been grim, particularly for women and girls. With no indoor plumbing, many residents must walk through poorly lit, garbage-strewn lanes to communal pay toilets. The facilities are often filthy.

They are also insecure, with layouts that offer no privacy or protection. Sexual harassment and assaults are common at the toilets, as well as in the fields or vacant lots that women use at night when the public facilities are closed.

Women also stand for hours every day at wells or taps to fill buckets of water for household needs. They look after family members made ill by dirty water, and spend scarce resources on health services. In poor urban areas across India, water-related chores keep girls out of school and women from earning vital income.

Linking services and safety

In 2009, Montreal-based Women in Cities International and Jagori, a women’s group in New Delhi, joined forces to investigate water and sanitation conditions for women in Bawana and Bhalswa. The 2½-year initiative, funded by IDRC, focused on how inadequate infrastructure and services put women’s health and safety at risk.

As a first step, they set out to adapt the Women’s Safety Audit, a tool created in Toronto for evaluating the safety for women of urban public spaces. The first such audit was developed by the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence against Women and Children in 1989.

An audit involves a group of women walking through their neighbourhood to identify physical and social features that make it feel safe or unsafe. The Delhi initiative represented the first time the tool had been used to assess women’s health and safety concerns related to water and sanitation.

Neighbourhood walks

Jagori focused its efforts on Bawana and another NGO, Action India, worked in Bhalswa. The researchers mobilized women residents, government officials, and service providers to walk through neighbourhoods and record the subtle forms of harassment women and girls face when they access essential services. The safety audit brought to light previously overlooked issues, such as how poor infrastructure and design can create unsafe environments.

In partnership with the independent Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, the researchers also analyzed Delhi’s municipal budget for 2009-2010. They compared the opportunity costs for women — that is, wages they were unable to earn because of time spent collecting water and accessing sanitation — with the city government’s expenditures on water and sanitation services.

They found that the government spent just 66 cents per person annually on water and $1.78 per person on sanitation, but the related lost income for a woman in a low-income community was $50 a year. These and other findings are detailed in a report, Gender and Essential Services in Low-Income Communities.

Community engagement

The women of Bawana and Bhalswa are now promoting their right to better services. They have used India’s Right to Information Act to demand accountability from officials. In Bawana, for example, they filed four “right to information” applications to find out who was responsible for maintaining the community toilets, and to obtain drain cleaners’ attendance records.

Households in Bhalswa now receive piped water for a few hours a day or from tanks that visit the lanes twice a week. Women have formed lane committees to monitor the delivery and quality of this water. In Bawana, garbage collection by motorized vehicles has started, and community pressure led to the reopening of several public toilets. Groups of women ensure that lights on the street and in community toilets are working. These and other practical steps, along with awareness-raising efforts, have helped reduce the level of harassment experienced by women and girls.

In both communities, young women and men were keen to play a role. Working with Jagori and OneWorld Foundation India, youth in Bawana produced six radio programs about women’s unequal access to water and sanitation that were broadcast nationally. They also organized lane gatherings for residents to listen to the programs and discuss the issues. Groups of women and youth now meet regularly with the local councillor and Member of the Legislative Assembly to discuss community issues.

Handbook on safety audits

The research team has put together a guide to help other communities conduct similar audits: A Handbook on Women’s Safety Audits in Low-Income Urban Neighbourhoods: A Focus on Essential Services.

In a chapter of Building Inclusive Cities, urban planner Prabha Khosla and Jagori director Suneeta Dhar note the project’s wider impact: "Community women and girls participating in the safety audit walks said that they had not thought about associating certain aspects of harassment with inappropriate services. It also prompted men and boys to reflect, become more aware and break their silence on issues of violence against women and girls in their communities."

In November 2012, the Delhi municipal government announced the creation of an “audit cell” to monitor the planning, safety, and quality of all future major infrastructure projects in the city. Jagori was named to this team.

To learn more

Kelly Haggart is a senior writer at IDRC. Cecelia McGuire is a writer based in Perth, Ontario.

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.  

Photos (right): Women in Cities International