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Four priorities for improving WASH for women in the workplace

Emily Endres   |   March 22, 2016   |   Comments

This year’s theme for World Water Day is “Water & Jobs.” In order to explore this topic in a meaningful way, it’s important to address the critical connection to women. Specifically, the growing number of women from the developing world who are now working outside of their homes and how they’re impacted by access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities in the workplace —particularly for those women working in the garment industry.

For millions of women in India, Bangladesh and Viet Nam, garment factories provide employment opportunities that help them support their families and attain financial independence and self-sufficiency. In fact, women represent approximately 80 percent of workers in garment factories making your clothes around the world.

Water is an essential resource not only for the manufacturing of clothing, but for the livelihood and wellbeing of the women who make that clothing. To better understand the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) landscape in some of the countries where they do business, the global retailer Gap Inc. worked with Results for Development Institute (R4D) to identify some of the opportunities in the WASH sector in India, Bangladesh and Viet Nam. The study examined the regulatory environments around the WASH sector and included interviews with innovators, development professionals, and academics.

R4D identified four key areas of opportunity in the WASH sector that deserve more attention:

1. WASH in Workplaces

Within the WASH sector, there are limited resources being invested in understanding access to WASH in workplaces, despite its potential impact on women, especially in South Asia where the garment industry employs large numbers of young women. In India alone, 60 percent of the 8 million people employed in the textile and garment industry are women (International Trade Division, Ministry of Textiles). Because these women often stay in dormitories at the factory, it is vital to ensure that they have reliable and consistent access to clean water and sanitation facilities. Stakeholders in the textile and garment manufacturing industry have an opportunity to provide access to essential WASH products, services, and education to their employees. For example, Gap Inc. has incorporated a WASH curriculum into their P.A.C.E. program, which provides life and work skills training to help women achieve their goals both at home and in their careers. In addition, the company’s Code of Vendor Conduct outlines the requirements of its business partners to provide access to safe drinking water and sanitary toilets to their employees working in garment factories.

Those in the international development community or research institutions can support efforts for advancing WASH in the workplace through the collection and publication of data on WASH needs. Currently less than five publicly available pieces of research on WASH in the workplace have been published. Increasing the amount of information in this area can help draw attention to a neglected field and act as an important advocacy tool for increased investment and a better understanding of the needs of women and men in the workplace.

2. Hygiene Promotion & Education

While the newly agreed upon Sustainable Development Goals address WASH, they do not have a dedicated target for hygiene promotion and hand washing, despite its merits as one of the most cost-effective public health interventions. In addition, few countries have specific policies in place for hygiene promotion, and even then, they are often poorly implemented and under-resourced.

Average expenditure on hygiene promotion interventions by national governments is less than 1 percent of total WASH funding. (GLAAS Report 2014) In addition, other important aspects of hygiene could benefit from greater investment, including menstrual hygiene management (MHM), personal hygiene, and hygienic food preparation. Education around proper MHM practices and giving women the power to choose from a range of high quality MHM products is key to helping them feel healthier, more comfortable and more confident. Integrating proper hand washing and other hygiene practices into education programs in the workplace can help women develop lifelong habits that will improve their own health and the health of their families.

3. Ensuring No One is Left Behind

As urbanization increases in many countries, WASH stakeholders are turning their attention to solving some of the unique problems in urban and peri-urban areas. For example, the density and overpopulation in informal settlements is problematic when installing sewer lines or water pipes. In response, innovative new technologies and market-based solutions are being developed to address these challenges. In cities where WASH services are currently unavailable, this kind of innovation is vital to overcoming complicated issues to accessing WASH. However, in order to address the full scope of SDG 6 to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” a sustained effort to serve rural communities in hard-to-reach areas can strengthen progress toward achieving this goal.

4. Promoting Water Stewardship

In many areas of South and Southeast Asia, populations and industries are growing rapidly, placing increasing pressure on already stressed water resources. Textile and garment manufacturing contributes significantly to the economies of many South and Southeast Asian nations. In Bangladesh, the garment industry accounts for one-sixth of the economy. But these industries are also heavy water users and can produce wastewater containing pollutants.

There is a unique opportunity for textile and garment manufacturers to serve as responsible water stewards by understanding the water risks where they do business, addressing water use and wastewater in their own operations, and importantly, by working with industry collaborations. Gap Inc. has worked with Conservation International to map water related risks and opportunities in key sourcing regions. It is also expanding its Water Quality Program that monitors wastewater in its denim laundries, and has committed to Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals by 2020.

Leading global apparel companies like Gap Inc. recognize the key role that partnering with one another, nonprofits, and governments and taking collective action play in addressing water issues. Industry collaborations such as the National Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC’s) Clean by Design initiative, Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel (GLASA), Bangladesh Partnership for Cleaner Textile (PaCT), The World Bank’s Bangladesh Responsible Sourcing Initiative (RSI), and others, are working to make large-scale changes within the industry to cut water use and pollution through innovations like the 10 small, inexpensive actions factory managers can take to reduce water waste and use of chemicals identified by the RSI in China. (World Bank, The Bangladesh Responsible Resources Initiative: A New Model for Green Growth)

Water is a critical element to the success of the Sustainable Development Goals and the success of the hundreds of thousands of women that work in the garment industry, specifically. R4D’s research has highlighted four key areas that can help the WASH sector make inroads for improving WASH for women in the workplace. This research will also help to inform Gap Inc.’s ongoing initiatives to create solutions for Women + Water. On this World Water Day, let’s recognize the opportunities we have to support the women who make the clothes we wear, and their right to safe, clean water in the communities where they live.

Visit the WASH Impact Network website to learn more about R4D’s WASH-related research and efforts to support over 120 innovative WASH programs across India and East Africa.

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