It takes a systems diagram


An expert blog by Emily Dwyer of Edge Effect, Sexual and Gender Minority Inclusion Adviser to the Water for Women Fund. Water for Women and SNV Netherlands Development Organisation recently hosted the Fund’s first regional learning event, ‘Systems strengthening for inclusive WASH – leaving no one behind’, in Kathmandu, Nepal for 50 Water for Women partner representatives. This blog is the third in a series of expert blogs developed as part of the event.


More than one-third of CSOs implementing Water for Women country programs have made specific efforts to include sexual and gender minorities[1] within their projects, or are exploring ways of engaging with this group. Many of those CSOs are working in South Asia, and were present at the ‘Systems strengthening for inclusive WASH – leaving no one behind’ learning event. This blog reflects on some of the ways that systems thinking can support genuine engagement with sexual and gender minorities.


The challenge facing sexual and gender minority inclusion in WASH across the region was made very clear during the Event’s field trip. We first visited a municipality where the mayor presented municipal level data on the people who lived there and the status of WASH projects. Nepal’s constitution recognises a third, non-binary gender, and the municipal data included population disaggregated as men, women and other for each of the sub-municipal areas.


After a short bus ride we arrived at a public toilet block, in a sub-municipal area where the mayor’s presentation reported 20 third-gender or non-binary people. When we asked the local staff at the toilet block if third-gender or non-binary people use the toilet, we were told quickly and clearly: “that must be a data collection error, there are none of those people here”.


That was a common theme of the day: the common disconnect between policy and process at a national and municipal level (that was more inclusive) and specific constructions and local community development practice (that was far less inclusive).


Interesting things can happen when you’re just a little outside your comfort zone. When providing advice on sexual and gender minority inclusion in a development project, we usually take our time to ensure that advice leads to safe, effective and equitable outcomes. And we often provide feedback at a high-levels, sometimes in conceptual terms, sometimes at national or whole of program level.


However at one session at the Learning Event in Nepal, the inclusion advisers were called upon to provide immediate commentary, based on schematic diagrams of WASH-sector stakeholders and processes generated by each Water for Women partner team.  Several of the teams produced schematics of considerable complexity, involving layers of national, municipal, sub-municipal, community and neighbourhood committees and processes. In providing feedback I was struck by the challenge of integrating inclusion across so many layers.


A lot of inclusion work happens at a national policy level. National CSOs that advocate for marginalised groups often work at the national level, and that’s where government policy is likely to be influenced by national and international experts and ‘best practice’. But once you get out of the capital and into sub-municipal, community and neighbourhood contexts, that inclusion guidance is rare. And if there is a tendency to render marginalised groups invisible (other group members were told that there were no people with disabilities living there either), there may be little or no implementation of inclusion in practice.


A challenge for CSOs working in the WASH sector is to assess where they should focus their (often limited) resources available for inclusion, when there are so many layers of the WASH system. If policy does not trickle down from national and municipal layers, should inclusion resources be focused at sub-municipal, community and neighbourhood layers? Participatory approaches are likely to say yes, but the resources required to engage simultaneously with sub-municipal, community and neighbourhood groups may not exist. More creative approaches to encourage and amplify locally-led change are probably the only practical solution. All of which are good examples of exploring a systems approach, the theme of the overall workshop.


In my formal presentation on sexual and gender minority inclusion, I also picked up on this theme. The diagram below was a very quickly drawn attempt to capture the systemic nature of marginalisation, showing that marginalisation in relation to WASH involves wide range of legal and social processes that reinforce:


WASH sector CSOs can choose parts of the system on which to focus their efforts, for example a loop such as:



Social stigma means that sexual and gender minorities are often discriminated against when seeking jobs, which contributes to poverty, which means sexual and gender minorities often live in parts of cities where it is cheaper to rent, those parts of cities may have limited WASH facilities (e.g. water from a community tap), social stigma again kicks in as sexual and gender minority community members may experience discrimination using the community tap, which leads to less access to water for washing, which reinforces stereotypes and reinforces social stigma. That is highly simplified, but is based on evidence that Joya Sikder gave to the Water on a Gender Continuum workshop in Kolkata in August 2019. Joya Sikder is a trans woman from Bangladesh, who leads the organisation Somporker Noya Setu. The loop highlighted here approximates the evidence she gave about challenges facing hijra (non-binary gender) people in Dhaka.


Whether looking at systemic marginalisation, or multi-layered systems, the challenges facing organisations pursuing inclusive WASH are considerable. The focus on these issues within Water for Women is a great start.


Emily Dwyer is Managing Director of Edge Effect, a specialist organisation working with development and humanitarian actors to ensure that the rights, needs and strengths of people with diverse SOGIESC (aka LGBTIQ+ people or sexual and gender minorities) are addressed in policy and practice. Emily has worked in the humanitarian and development sectors since 2004, with a focus on programs in the Asia and Pacific regions. 

[1] Aka LGBTIQ+ or diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC). There is intense debate about terms and acronyms, for more on language choice please see:

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