Handwashing for All… at critical times, in a critical time

Handwashing with soap

Handwashing in schools in Solomon Islands (Plan International Australia)


Today is a critical day. It is the day that acknowledges the critical importance of handwashing to stop the spread of disease, which COVID-19 has now made even more critical.


Today is also the day that acknowledges the critical role that rural women and girls play in all aspects of community life.


This year’s theme for Global Handwashing Day is “Hand Hygiene for All”, and for Rural Women’s Day, “Rural Women and Girls Building Resilience.” Success in both is interlinked.


How are they interlinked?

Hand hygiene for all has a nice ring to it, but how easy is it to achieve? What needs to happen for everyone to practice safe and hygienic hand washing?


You might start with the obvious: access to clean water and soap, simple right?


But how obvious or easy is this for the 3 billion people around the world who don’t have handwashing facilities in their homes, the 800 million children who lack adequate facilities in their schools, and for 32 percent of the world’s health care facilities? For these people, the ability to wash their hands frequently and regularly is far from possible.



Addressing the inequalities that exclude people from access to sufficient water, resources and services (SDG10), now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is key to ensuring hand hygiene for all becomes a reality for all.  Women and girls, men and boys, LGBTIQ+ people, people with limited or no means of livelihood, people from rural and remote populations, people with disabilities, and people of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds. These inequalities need to be tackled at every level – institutional, community and household, and in ways that 'Do No Harm', if we are to truly achieve hand hygiene for all.


How does this relate to Rural women?

It is certainly not new news that women sustain rural households and communities, mostly through unpaid, underpaid and/or voluntary work:

Women account for a substantial proportion of the agricultural labour force, including informal work, and perform the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work within families and households in rural areas. They make significant contributions to agricultural production, food security and nutrition, land and natural resource management, and building climate resilience.[1]


Water for Women Fund partners have adopted Do No Harm approaches as a key element of their work.

This involves supporting women, people with disabilities and marginalised groups to have greater voice and agency in decisions that affect them and their communities, so that no one is left behind.

Having a Do No Harm lens to this empowerment work means doing this in a way that works to bring everyone in the community along with them, to ensure safety and reduce the risk of backlash.

Three key Do No Harm approaches in Water for Women projects include:

Working with organisations that represent and support women, people with disabilities and marginalised groups

Including social protection messages in their COVID hygiene promotion campaigns, so that survivors of violence can be linked into social and health services

Ensuring a strong gender and social inclusion focus in WASH systems strengthening work, so that that decision-making structures and processes can represent everyone in the community.

Learn more

We also know that overall rural women experience higher rates of poverty and exclusion than do rural men and urban women, resulting in a lack of access to livelihood opportunities, services and resources, including health care and WASH. Structural barriers and discriminatory gender norms can weigh heavily on women’s capacity to participate equally in decision-making in their homes and communities – even more so for women with disabilities.


Yet gender norms more often than not dictate that women take on primary responsibility for the care and health of their families. COVID-19, its associated restrictions and secondary impacts, have made these expectations even more pronounced. Building on the resilience of rural women and girls is important as a way of strengthening their power and agency to manage the shocks and stresses that COVID-19 has wrought, as long as it is not yet another ‘responsibility’ they have to manage for everyone else.


Gender Equality and handwashing go ‘hand in hand’


In handwashing campaigns, women have been traditionally targeted to promote hand hygiene in their families, due to their care responsibilities. While this makes sense on one level, it can also have the effect of increasing the burden on them for success or failure. The social construction of the “Good Mother” in hand washing campaigns, and the inherent pressures that come to bear on women from this social construct is examined in Good Mums: A Gender Equality Perspective on the Constructions of the Mother in Handwashing Campaigns (Cavill, Sue and Huggett, Chelsea:The Journal of Gender and Water (2020).


Read now

Good Mums: A Gender Equality Perspective on the Constructions of the Mother in Handwashing Campaigns

In recognition of this, many Water for Women partners are broadening their focus to target men. Attention to targeting men (fathers/husbands/male family members) equally to women in hand washing campaigns is not only likely to lead to hand washing by more people and more sustainable behaviour change, but it also has the potential to transform gender roles, with men being more involved in care work.

And the more men are involved in care work, the greater the likelihood of equal decision-making in the home, such as the decision to invest in a handwashing facility. And the greater the likelihood women are supported to have leadership roles in their communities.

This approach has the power to make a strong contribution to SDG 5 – Achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.

Now that’s real resilience being built!

And that means more people washing their hands at - critical times, in a critical time.



This Insights article was written by Joanna Mott, Gender and Social Inclusion Advisor, Water for Women. TO view more of our Insights, see here.


Contact Us