arrow_backEmergency WASH

E.3 Gender Issues

Cultural practices concerning gender create some of the world’s most fundamental sources of inequality and exclusion. A strict and inflexible application of gender-related social codes of behaviour often leads to stereotyping and limits people’s choices and their access to resources. For example, women in many contexts do not have the same decision making power as men in either their households or the community. They may have limited control over the resources they need to improve their health and hygiene. However, assumptions about their needs and vulnerability should be avoided. Women have different needs and various factors can have an impact on vulnerability (e.g. pregnancy, disability, female-headed households). 

Gender identity is no longer seen as binary – male and female - but on a spectrum. For example, transgender people’s gender identity does not correspond to their sex at birth. In contrast, cisgender people’s gender identity matches their birth sex. People also identify themselves as non-binary, a third gender or not ascribed to any gender.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is often directed against women (although not exclusively) and is a consequence of women’s subordinate position in society. Gender-based violence is also perpetrated against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and genderqueer or questioning and intersex (LGBTQI+) community because their sexual orientation and/or gender identity means they do not ascribe to societal norms . Whilst gender norms often influence the behaviour of people who are LGBTQI+, they should not be treated as a homogenous group but as individuals with different perspectives, identities and WASH-related needs.

In emergencies, where societal structures may have been disrupted and resources are limited, women and people who are LGBTQI+ may become even more at risk of discrimination and violence; they may be forced into sexually exploitative situations to earn money. Poorly designed and sited WASH facilities can increase the risk of GBV. Gender analyses should be carried out to understand the specifics of each context. Where possible, specialist expertise should be sought or training by local Women’s Rights Organisations and local LGBTQI+ groups to inform the analysis of the particular needs, risks, vulnerabilities and capacities of these groups.

An understanding of gender norms and gender inequality is important in WASH programmes because without it the respective needs, roles and capabilities of women, girls, men, boys and people of different gender identities may go unmet. Gender equality programming is critical to ensuring an effective WASH response. It has two main strategies: gender mainstreaming and targeted actions. A WASH programme can respond to practical mainstreamed hygiene needs (e.g. safe and accessible facilities (P.2 to P.4) or Menstrual Health and Hygiene P.7 and to targeting social inequality (e.g. changing the position in society of marginalised groups such as women or transgender people through gender transformative targeted actions and opportunities that challenge the status quo). For example, women are generally expected to collect water and manage it in the household but are rarely trained as technicians to repair the water pumps upon which they depend – a gender transformative project would support female technicians whilst also sensitising the community to these role changes to ensure safe programming. Transgender people’s WASH needs are often overlooked. Their views on the provision of sanitation are rarely sought due to a lack of expertise on LGBTQI+ rights in the humanitarian community as well limited engagement with local LGBTQI+ groups. Responders should be aware that transgender people may face discrimination when using sex-segregated toilets and be excluded, harassed or even arrested for using a toilet attributed to their gender rather than their sex. 

In order to promote gender equality, it is also important to consider both the disaster-affected community and those who are responding to the emergency. Gender disparity runs throughout society so it is also present in aid organisations and governments. Gender policies and procedures can help to promote gender equality through mechanisms such as funding and targeted budgeting, recruitment policies, job descriptions, codes of conduct and training.

Process & Good Practice

  • Avoid the assumption that WASH roles and responsibilities are determined by a person’s gender – women can be WASH technicians and some men may feel happier in a caring role. 

  • Ensure that recruitment policies encourage gender diverse applications so that staffing is balanced and representative. Aim for gender-balanced and representative assessment and response teams. Try to ensure that community networks reflect the groups they are working with.

  • Conduct a comprehensive WASH and gender assessment and analysis to understand the particular experiences, needs, rights and risks facing women, girls, men, boys, LGBTQI+ individuals, people with disabilities, people of different ages, ethnicities and other aspects of diversity.

  • Train staff on the links between gender-based violence and WASH and on how to refer people to a GBV service.

  • Involve different groups in the design of WASH facilities and services and consider the needs of pregnant and breastfeeding women, carers of young children, menstruating women and girls, the needs of women experiencing menopause, those who are transgender and non-binary as well as the hygiene needs of men and boys. Where possible, bring groups together to discuss ideas and address problems but recognise that separate groups may sometimes be necessary to counter exclusion and prejudice related to WASH.

  • Consult people of different gender identities on WASH-related roles such as who takes responsibility for transporting and distributing water, drilling wells, constructing toilets and operating and maintaining systems.

  • Conduct regular safety and privacy audits T.1 of WASH facilities and adapt these based on the recommendations of different groups e.g. siting, door locks, lighting, female-only cleaners for female toilets.

  • Collect, analyse and report on gender (and age) disaggregated data throughout the programme cycle and ensure that it is used to influence programme decisions to improve gender equity.

  • Understand existing power imbalances and avoid reinforcing traditional gender roles and harmful gender stereotypes through hygiene promotion and WASH behaviour change communication (e.g. by increasing women’s workload).

  • Identify and engage men and boys who can be positive role models and change agents to promote hygiene within the household and community – not just women.

  • Work with schools; they can play a significant role in promoting gender equality in WASH services and facilities.


  • Identify opportunities to challenge structural inequalities between women and men and to promote women’s leadership within the WASH programme.

  • Mirror the terminology that people use to describe themselves where possible, recognising the diversity of gender identities and expressions. For example, not all transgender people wish to be referred to in the same way. Avoid calling people by acronyms only such as ‘the LGBTQI+ community’ and use ‘people who are…’ instead. 



To ensure that an understanding of gender equality is incorporated into WASH emergency responses.


  • Gender is a social construct built through cultural, political and social practices that defines the roles of women, girls, men and boys, as well as the social definitions of what it means to be masculine and feminine.

  • Gender is not only about understanding women’s needs (as is often believed). In many situations ascribed gender roles mean that men control resources and decision making and women are subordinate to them. Gender norms can also restrict men’s freedoms and choices, such as the assumption that men are the main breadwinners or should not cry. 

  • In an emergency response, men, women, girls and boys and those with other gender identities will have different access to resources and different ways of coping with the crisis; this will affect their level of vulnerability. Understanding this is important to implement an equitable response that does not reinforce social inequalities.

  • Gender norms are socially constructed, learned (and therefore changeable over time) and dependent on the context. In an emergency, opportunities may arise which can lead to change, for example in a redistribution of care roles where men and boys take on more caregiving responsibilities or help to collect water. 

  • Not everyone from a marginalised group is vulnerable. There is an interrelationship between different social factors that can lead to discrimination based on gender and sexuality as well as class, caste, ethnicity and disability. General assumptions should be avoided e.g. that all women will be vulnerable in any given situation. Programme decisions need to be based on a careful assessment of all the factors influencing vulnerability.


Guidance on why and how to collect disaggregated data in an emergency

Mazurana, D., Benelli, P. et al. (2011): Sex and Age Matter. Improving Humanitarian Response in Emergencies, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University

Guidance on exploring gender in WASH programmes

Water Aid (2016): Exploring Gender Aspects of Community Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. A Manual for Facilitating Dialogue between Women and Men in Communities

Guidance on gender for all sectors including WASH

IASC (2018): The Gender Handbook for Humanitarian Action. IASC Reference Group on Gender and Humanitarian Action, IASC Reference Group on Gender and Humanitarian Action

IFRC (2021): Protection, Gender and Inclusion in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion - Leaving No-One Behind in WASH (Available in different languages)

Practical guidance focusing on involving men and boys in sanitation and hygiene

Cavill, S., Mott, J. et al. (2018): Engaging Men and Boys in Sanitation and Hygiene Programmes. Frontiers of CLTS Issue 11, IDS

Practical monitoring tool

Plan International Australia (2014): Gender and WASH Monitoring Tool

Film on GenCap advisors work on WASH

IASC GenCap (2011): Gender in Humanitarian Action: WASH