Five ways that WASH initiatives can help shift harmful gender norms and advance gender equality

An illustration of a floating coconut used to convey paid and unpaid work from IWDA

 The floating coconut helps us understand men's a women's roles in economies in Melanesia, developed by the International Women's Development Agency


This insight is authored by Joanne Crawford, Strategic Advisor, Equality Insights, International Women's Development Agency


“Social norms”[1] are rules that govern people’s behaviours in their local community context, including how they think about roles and responsibilities for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Harmful social norms can reduce people’s access to WASH services as well as their ability to participate in WASH decision-making processes. 


WASH initiatives can be negatively impacted by harmful gender norms, which are a subset of social norms. Examples of harmful gender norms include that women are responsible for WASH work in the family, and women are not good at leading and taking decisions for WASH.


Across many societies, individuals, groups and organisations of various kinds are working to change beliefs, perceptions and behaviours, to improve gender equality. WASH initiatives, which have as their ultimate objective the achievement of universal WASH access, can make a strong contribution to shifting harmful gender norms that are slowing the realisation of WASH commitments and gender equality.


Five ways in which WASH activities can both achieve better WASH outcomes and advance gender equality are:


Establish an ongoing relationship with women’s rights organisations in the project context

Women’s rights organisations are essential partners in realising the full value and potential of WASH investments. They hold important knowledge and experience that complements and extends WASH knowledge. For example, knowledge about how to navigate and work effectively in a particular context. Their ongoing focus on advancing gender equality can help WASH organisations to achieve more, faster.

Sometimes norms lag reality. Women’s rights organisations are more likely to be in touch with changes in roles and contributions as they are happening and understand that making changes visible can help other people imagine different options and opportunities. They also see what is not changing, and can draw attention to the challenges and limitations this brings.


Work at multiple levels

Gendered norms are rooted deep in how we think about ourselves, our relationships, our communities. They are supported by economic and social rules. Some of these rules are visible, others are unspoken expectations of how things ‘should’ work. These rules exist at many levels – in our own minds, in the expectations of families and communities, in laws, in how our economies and societies are organised.

Rules and expectations set years ago may not reflect how things work today, or how individuals, families and communities want or need to organise their lives. They limit options for both women and men, but gender inequality confirms that women and sexual and gender minorities bear the greatest personal cost. Changing this requires engaging at all the levels where such norms operate.


Make visible the implications of harmful gendered norms, for different people

Making visible the implications of harmful gendered norms for different people can support conversations about who does what in families, communities, economies and societies, whether different arrangements are possible and the benefits this could bring. In contexts where women and men do different kinds of work, they may not fully know what the other does, what that work involves, and its implications - for individuals, the family and the community. This can hide overall workloads, across different kinds of work, and make it more difficult to organise a fair sharing of paid and unpaid work, that meets different needs and priorities.

The “floating coconut” is a tool that was developed to make visible the wide range of activities that create economic and social value in communities and explore who does what work, and whether it has to be this way. This can help to identify changes that would bring mutual opportunities and benefits. This short video shares the experiences of WASH project staff using the “floating coconut” in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.  

An illustration of a floating coconut filled with different visible and invisible domestic and care activities

The Floating Coconut: understanding women and men’s roles in economies in Melanesia


Prioritise changes that benefit both women and men

By focusing on changes that benefit both women and men, WASH programs can build understanding about the benefits that flow from greater gender equality, and garner further support for change. It is helpful for the whole community to see and experience the benefits of gender equality, so that there is momentum for sustained change, and as groundwork to tackle more difficult norms, for example, those that affect only women.


Collect data to inform this work and demonstrate the difference change brings

Collecting data from individuals about WASH and other key aspects of life can help to reveal the implications of gendered and unequal norms about who does what work, or who makes which decisions. This process can demonstrate the multiple benefits that come from improving WASH access, and tackling gender inequalities in and through WASH.

Equality Insights is a gender data tool that collects information about 15 key dimensions of life plus assets from individuals, to understand their circumstances and the barriers they experience and how these vary by factors such as gender, age, disability and geography. It includes water and sanitation as two of these dimensions, with questions that address gendered WASH issues such as sufficiency of water access during menstruation.

The WASH-Gender Equality Measure is another new quantitative measure to assist practitioners and researchers in assessing changes in gender outcomes associated with WASH programs for women and men. One legacy of gender inequality is that not everything that matters for understanding and addressing practical barriers to equality is currently measured. Shifting measurement approaches and priorities is part of the process of revealing lived realities and providing evidence to improve the effectiveness of WASH initiatives and gender equality.

[1] Social norms are rules “of behaviour that people in a group conform to because they believe: (a) most other people in the group do conform to it; and (b) most other people in the group believe they ought to conform to it” (Alexander-Scott et al., 2016, p. 9).

A blue graphic featuring thumbnail covers of 3 transformative resources

During World Water Week, Water for Women launched its “Transformative trio” of guidance publications on transforming norms and partnerships through WASH. To access these resources, visit:

  1. Shifting Social Norms for Transformative WASH: Guidance for WASH Actors
  2. Shifting Social Norms for Transformative WASH: Review of Concepts, Literature and Practice
  3. Partnerships for Transformation: Guidance for WASH and Rights Holder Organisations


Joanne Crawford shared these five ways that WASH organisations can help shift harmful gender norms when she spoke on the expert panel during the session on 24 August 2022: Changing invisible norms - the key to inclusive water and WASH. It was during this important session that the transformative trio were launched.


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