Plan International is a humanitarian, rights-based development organisation with a special focus on equal rights and opportunities for girls and young women. Its water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) initiatives are strongly related to its gender and social inclusion approach. “Even more so in times of corona,” argues Mascha Singeling, WASH expert at Plan International. “We even see it as a precondition for success.” In addition to the focus on gender and social inclusion, Plan International has acquired solid knowledge on local contexts and working relationships with local and national governments. “We know the WASH needs in the countries where we work, and we have a good idea of what is effective in the long-term.”
‘With Covid-19 spreading all over the world, WASH is receiving much attention at Plan International, given that the key recommendation for preventing the spread of the virus is frequent hand washing with soap. This requires easily accessible, sufficient and reliable sources of water – preferably piped to users.
In times of crisis, women and girls, people with disabilities and other socially excluded groups are usually the ones who get hit the hardest. In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, the coronavirus on top of poor WASH is reinforcing gender and social inequality. Think of health workers for instance, most of whom are women who cannot keep the advised social distance. Or people with disabilities, for whom it is virtually impossible to go into Covid-19 quarantine and comply with distancing rules when they need help from others every day.
For us, the corona crisis is like a magnifying glass that makes the importance of gender and social inclusion even more visible. Plan International works to reduce these inequalities through its WASH response. With 52 offices in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, we have a widely distributed network of local expertise that includes a good number of WASH professionals. Our added value lies at two levels: one, in supporting and enhancing government capacity to promote effective hygiene behaviours; and two, in encouraging and assisting communities to build their own household latrines and handwashing stations to improve hygiene.
It is crucial for any WASH related project success to involve women and girls, people with disabilities and other excluded groups from the project development phase to its implementation and evaluation. In most of the countries where we work, men are the primary decision makers. We want to make sure that other stakeholders, who are often excluded from the decision-making process, also have a say. Their involvement will guarantee that sanitation provisions and hygiene campaigns cater to everyone’s needs.
However, to ensure women and girls have time to participate in the decision making and implementation of WASH projects, household tasks need to be more equally divided. Experience has taught us that if you do not take this into account, participation will come on top of their already demanding household workload. A gender and socially inclusive approach is therefore needed to ensure that this group has the time and support to meaningfully participate in WASH decision making.
Two crucial aspects of this approach are the involvement of men and boys and the interaction between men and women. To lay the groundwork, Plan International facilitates information sessions where women and men learn about dividing household chores. Other activities entail sessions at schools where we talk about menstrual hygiene and why having a toilet at school can make the difference between a girl attending school or staying at home. We also put together tips and tricks for anyone developing WASH Covid-19 activities who wants to make them gender and socially inclusive.
Covid-19 has had a huge impact on our WASH activities. Our training sessions usually involve large groups of people, but this is simply not possible now. And that is bad news as the chances of the coronavirus spreading are high in many of the areas where we work due to poor hygiene and the lack of facilities.
To continue our work, we developed new ways to convey our messages, for instance through radio commercials and online training. And we are going back to more basic methods such as driving trucks with loudspeakers through communities and erecting poles with loudspeakers in remote villages to disseminate information on what Covid-19 is and how to prevent its spread. In many places we have turned our activities into remote training which a limited number of people can attend while maintaining social distance.
We collaborate with many other actors on WASH, be they governments, communities, companies and NGOs. In the north of Malawi, for instance, we worked intensively with Vitens Evides International (VEI), a Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP) member, as is Plan International. In this project, VEI supported the local drinking water operator to improve the water infrastructure in one of the regions while Plan International worked with the city government to roll out hygiene campaigns and construct communal latrines at markets.
In another example, in Zambia we are working with Xopi, a Dutch company that has developed an ingenious soap dispenser which is very useful in our Covid-19 response. Yet another example is our cooperation with Nazava, an Indonesian company which has developed affordable household water filters that ensures safe drinking water.
One of the reasons to become an NWP member was that it helps us find these types of partners. We are part of its NGO Water Platform and this keeps us up-to-date and connected with other development organisations working in the field of WASH. Furthermore, we can present ourselves to other organisations interested in WASH related activities in country platform meetings and other networking activities.
We are an NGO with ample knowledge on local circumstances. We have seen many examples of unsustainable solutions that have only worked in the short term and we know what factors, including gender and socially inclusive approaches, contribute to successful initiatives. So I would like to encourage anyone interested in working on WASH to talk to us. We can exchange knowledge and experience, learn from each other and perhaps we can join forces!’