Hand in hand: Putting clean hands within reach through equitable WASH access

A close-up of a student in Solomon Islands with soapy hands at a handwashing station, an orange bar of soap sits in front of their hands above the tap. Two other students can be seen out of focus standing along the handwashing station also washing their hands. They are wearing blue school shirts.
Clean hands are within reach in Solomon Islands with Plan International and Live and Learn Environmental Education

October 15th marks two important events on the international calendar — Global Handwashing Day and the United Nations International Day of Rural Women.

Global Handwashing Day reminds us of the simple but vital act of handwashing with soap as an effective and affordable way to prevent diseases and save lives.

Rural Women’s Day recognises the invaluable contributions of rural women to development globally and the need to empower women at all levels to advance gender equality.

Both have the power to create a better and fairer world, but both require equitable access to clean water and safe sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

Access to WASH is critical for all people and all aspects of development, but it is acutely important for women and girls, who have specific needs such as those associated with menstrual health and hygiene, and who throughout the world, continue to be largely responsible for meeting community and household water and WASH needs. This limits their ability to participate in educational, economic, social and recreational opportunities, and can threaten their health, safety and well-being, as many are forced to walk long distances daily to fetch water, often from unsafe sources.

Rural women make up a significant proportion of the agricultural workforce worldwide, contributing to food security, nutrition, land and natural resource management. As informal workers, they also carry out most of the unpaid domestic care and household work. This lived experience makes rural women water and WASH experts in their communities. Rural women are also among those most disadvantaged and affected by the impacts of climate change. Yet, structural barriers and discriminatory social norms continue to limit their participation in decision-making and leadership positions in households and communities. Rural women are at the frontlines of our changing climate and are key to building resilience.

Although strong progress has been made towards universal hand hygiene in recent years, some 2 billion people worldwide are still unable to wash their hands with soap and water at critical times and around 653 million people still have no access to a handwashing facility at all.[1] Gravely, around 3.85 billion people attend healthcare facilities (HCFs) without soap and water for handwashing at patient points of care and toilets.[2] In HCFs, contaminated hands and environments play a significant role in pathogen transmission and the spread of antimicrobial resistance. Access to water and soap for handwashing is crucial for quality care, and essential for effective infection prevention and control.

Water for Women partners are working with communities and governments in 16 Asia-Pacific countries to ensure that clean hands are within reach in healthcare facilities, schools and communities. Together, we are helping to transform the systems that underpin WASH services and empower everyone to be part of decision-making and contribute to solutions – including women, people with disabilities and people from minority and marginalised groups. Local knowledge, insights and lived experiences are essential expertise for strengthening gender, disability and social inclusion and building climate resilience within WASH services and systems. Everyone has a role to play to ensure clean hands are within reach.

Explore our work

Recently published

Quality, Accessible and Safe Healthcare: Lessons on Strengthening WASH in Healthcare Facilities

As part of a WASH in HCF initiative delivered under Water for Women’s Learning Agenda, WaterAid compiled this report that synthesising and sharing lessons arising from Water for Women WASH in HCF projects from 2018 to 2022. It highlights the achievements of partners in advancing progress towards basic service levels in Bhutan, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, and draws out lessons learnt from the research and practical experience across the Fund.

The report includes:

  • Key lessons for CSOs working on WASH in HCFs when engaging with stakeholders, including governments and policymakers, donors, healthcare facilities, communities, non-governmental organisations and other CSOs
  • Use of three main global tools to inform efforts to improve WASH in HCFs — the Joint Monitoring Programme WASH Service Ladder for WASH in HCF, the Eight Practical Steps for WASH in HCFs and WASH FIT
  • CSOs’ role in supporting governments’ action — global approaches for WASH in HCFs

The recommendations should inform CSOs’ future project designs and advocacy to important sector actors to improve support for universal coverage and access to WASH in HCFs by 2030.

A blue graphic featuring the thumbnail cover of this resource

 Read our #GHD2023 insight from our recent visit to PNG

Clean Hands are within reach, but they need to be in reach for all

Did you know?

Three Water for Women partners are members of Papua New Guinea’s WASH in HCF technical working group (TWG). As part of this TWG, WaterAid, World Vision and Plan International support bi-monthly WASH in HCF stakeholder meetings alongside other multi-sector stakeholders including the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF. In PNG, a national WASH Coordination Group was initially established in 2015 after the promulgation of the PNG WASH policy to provide secretariat and administrative support for WASH implementation. After losing momentum, in 2021 the TWG was reformed and empowered to improve sector coordination at the national level.

WaterAid also helped to facilitate the terms of reference for implementing steps one to three of the WHO/UNICEF Eight Practical Steps for WASH in HCFs, and used this framework to conduct a situation analysis of WASH in HCFs in PNG in 2022. It found that many HCFs in PNG lack basic services across all domains of WASH, waste management and environmental cleaning, with sanitation and waste management services having the most significant gaps and rural areas with much less access to basic services than urban areas. The situation analysis highlighted the urgent action needed for PNG to achieve its ambitious goal of reaching universal coverage and targets for WASH in HCFs by 2030. Findings have been shared with TWG members and are being used to advocate for targeted support, including from potential investors in WASH in HCFs.

These partners, along with Live and Learn Environmental Education and local partners, form Water for Women’s PNG WASH Consortium, WASH Em Bikpela Samting (WEBS). Leveraging their collective experience, evidence, learning and strong relationships, WEBS is working across PNG's Central, Morobe and New Ireland provinces, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and National Capital District to address climate change impacts on WASH and build a strong enabling environment for climate-resilient and inclusive services.

In these project locations, climate-resilient WASH infrastructure is rare. Communities are highly reliant on shallow hand dug wells, surface water and rainwater harvesting, rather than piped systems. Most have unimproved sanitation facilities or practice open defection. Systems strengthening is a core focus to ensure sustainable and lasting impact beyond the life of the project. WEBS aims to directly benefit 47,615* people by the end of 2024 through improved access to climate-resilient and inclusive WASH in schools, healthcare facilities and communities.

More photos from our projects below celebrating handwashing!

A young girl and boy wash their hands at a handwashing station in India
CFAR in India
A young girl is viewed from below as she washes her hands with a tippy tap on a sunny day in Vanuatu
World Vision in Vanuatu
A close up of hands and arms being washed at an outdoor handwashing station at a health facility in Lao PDR
SNV in Lao PDR
A mother and young boy crouch to wash their hands at a water tank in Pakistan
IRC in Pakistan
A group of primary school students in a blue and maroon uniform stand outside a classroom smiling and waving their hands
Plan International in Solomon Islands
A teacher shows her students how to wash their hands properly at a school in Indonesia
Plan International in Indonesia
A Bhutanese man leans over to wash his hands at an outdoor sink attached to a home in a rural gewog in Trashigang. He is wearing a red shirt and maroon skirt. It is a rural village setting.
SNV in Bhutan
A woman uses a tippy tap to wash her hands with soap and water in rural Manufahi, Timor-Leste. She is smiling at the camera as she rubs her soapy hands together. The
WaterAid in Timor-Leste



[2] WHO / UNICEF, Half of health care facilities globally lack basic hygiene services (media release), WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme, Geneva/New York, 30 August 2022

Contact Us