In a joint publication by the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and the University of Oxford, it was shown that infrastructure can favourably influence the achievement of 92 per cent of targets across the seventeen SDGs. In addition, the UNOPS revealed that infrastructure can influence the achievement of all the targets within SDG 5, ‘Gender Equality’ and the thirty-two SDG targets across 11 of the 17 goals that directly affect gender-related issues. Despite these facts and myriads of local and global efforts over the years, globally, a significant infrastructure gap still exists with 940 million people living without electricity, 2.2 billion lacking access to safe water, 4.2 billion lacking access to safely managed sanitation facilities and 1 billion people living more than 2km away from an all-season road.
Several pieces of evidence have suggested that girls and women alike are disproportionately affected by the absence of this infrastructure and more so by gender-blind infrastructure. For instance, a survey by the Economics of Sanitation Initiative (ESI), shows that in places with indecent sanitational infrastructures, women as caregivers are faced with the extra burden of taking care of family members who fall sick as a result of poor sanitation, and also lose valuable time seeking security privacy to reach defecation site among other avoidable burdens
Gender-blind infrastructure fails to consider the different roles, responsibilities and particular needs of women, men, girls and boys in a specific context and how this affects their ability to use or access infrastructure.
WASH -Water Sanitation and Hygiene
According to Grete Faremo Under-Secretary-General and UNOPS Executive Director, ‘around the world, too many women and girls miss out on opportunities to improve their lives for a simple reason: the infrastructure around isn’t built with their needs in mind. These needs include lit roads, safe public roads and adequate and decent sanitation facilities among other needs.’
In the city of Lokoja, Kogi State, Lami Dansebe loses at least 16 hours in school every month because the facilities in her school are not adequate for good menstrual hygiene.
“ I don’t go to school every first day of my menstrual cycle and in some cases two days if the first day starts at night.”
Many girls in Nigeria share the same story as Lami, as a result of indecent or absence of good WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) facilities. At the Federal University of Technology, Minna, Ayoka Ilesanmi(not her real name), a student of Agriculture and Bioresources Engineering shared her experience of having to shuttle between her off-campus apartment and the lecture theatre between lectures to change sanitary pads on days when there is no flow of water in the school.
Women and girls have unique requirements and concerns when it comes to water and sanitation infrastructure, notably in terms of menstrual hygiene, pregnancy, and birth. For example, sanitation-related hookworm infections affect about 44 million pregnant women around the world annually.
Maternal Care and Services
According to UNICEF, Nigeria’s 40 million women of childbearing age (between 15 and 49 years of age) suffer a disproportionately high level of childbirth-related health issues. While the country represents 2.4 per cent of the world’s population, it currently contributes 10 per cent of global deaths for pregnant mothers.
Aside from medical reasons, non-medical reasons responsible for high maternal death in Nigeria include lack of proper transportation infrastructure and inadequate facilities and equipment needed for delivery.
In the Gwagwa community of the Abuja Municipal Council (AMAC), Racheal Abimaje while praising the healthcare workers at the facilities for their friendliness and support, lamented about the time of the ante-natal. She explained that where she lives is far from primary health care, and it is always difficult to return home at the end of the ante-natal when the sun is out and scorching. Speaking with one of the nurses, she explained that primary health care lacks essential facilities. For example, due to the limited number of wards and bed space, new mothers are not allowed to stay beyond 24 hours at the hospital to allow other women to access the facility.
Zubaida Abubakar also complained that the hospital does not have the equipment to carry out important tests to monitor pregnancy conditions such as scanning, and urinalysis, and this has to be done outside the clinic. ‘It’s costly and it’s not easy moving around on a bike here to run tests and coming back to the clinic’. Long distances and the lack of a safe and inclusive environment are some of the primary factors hindering access to quality health services for women and girls.
These barriers can be especially dangerous during a health crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which comes with its own peculiar difficulties for women and girls.
According to Dr Maruwf Zulikhat, a medical doctor at the Olabisi Onabanjo University Teaching Hospital, she suggested that the site of health facilities should be accessible, with public transportation links, clear cut borders, and sex-segregated facilities between places of delivery and other general services facilities in mind. She went further to explain that this would help protect the rights of these women to privacy and give them the assurance of being safe in accessing their desired services.
Lack of proper WASH facilities also affects hygiene practices in primary health care, which in turn increases hygiene-related medical diseases such as diarrhoea. In a UN research, 1 million deaths each year are associated with unclean births. Infections account for 26% of neonatal deaths and 11% of maternal mortality.
Women’s movement is hampered by unsafe and gender-blind public transportation. Gender-based violence is common in and around public transit, which can make it difficult for women and girls to use it. In France, 39 per cent of sexual assaults against women were reported in transit and train stations, and a multi-country study from the Middle East and North Africa region found that between 40 per cent to 60 per cent of women had experienced sexual harassment on the street.
Mariam Olumide, a young woman who works as an event planner in Lagos was on her way to a client’s event one Saturday morning, boarding one of the popular Lagos danfo buses. She narrated how the man sitting next to her suddenly took her hand and placed it on his private part, while on the bus. Noticing that no one else had paid attention, Mariam removed one of the pins from her Ijab (an item of clothing used by Muslim women) to defend herself. Consequently, she had to alight before getting to her destination while she took another danfo bus.
The experience of unconsented physical touches in public places is a common story shared by several women in Nigeria. There are also stories of bullying, especially when struggling to access public buses which are sometimes not enough due to the uneven gap between commuters and the available public transport facilities. Women like Oyindamola who live in Bwari and work in the distant area of Apo in the Federal Capital Territory are forced to compete for spaces with aggressive males every morning, to be able to get to work early enough.
According to UN research, women access and use public transport differently than men as they tend to have trips with multiple stops and destinations and shorter trips than men in combining the completion of their domestic and economic activities. In the same research, it was reported that domestic obligations such as picking up children or purchasing household items may require women to go through dangerous regions or wait for public transportation in secluded locations where they are more likely to become targets of violence.
Unpaid Care Work and Income Poverty
In many low-income countries and communities, women and girls are typically responsible for water supplies, sanitation, and health care, which are often time-consuming and exhausting. This time could have been invested in more economic ventures and activities.
In 8 out of 10 households with water off-premises, women and girls are responsible for fetching water in their various households: a domestic activity that consumes a valuable part of their time. Hence, the need for greater investment in the provision of potable water. According to the World Health Organisation, time-saving public services which include childcare and transport, and universal social protection systems, such as paid maternity and parental leave, and child and family transfers, inclusive infrastructure would make a major contribution to women’s and girls’ daily lives while helping to expand their women’s earning opportunities.
Moving From Gender-Blind with A Gender-Lens
Underdeveloped and gender-blind infrastructure is one of the leading causes of the inability of women and girls to access the basic services to support their upward social mobility and reduce the gender gap. From a World Bank index, Nigeria ranks 128 out of 153 countries examined for the global gender gap. In different discussions to promote Infrastructural, and gender equality, increasing funding for infrastructure has been a reoccurring talking point.
In Nigeria, the Executive Director of the NPHCDA, Dr Faisal Shuaib says the country requires about 2.7 trillion over a 10-year period to reinvigorate its primary health care centres. It is estimated by the UNOPS that approximately $28 trillion could be added to the annual global GDP in 2025 by achieving the equal participation of women and men in the economy.
Global Infrastructure Outlook, reveals the cost of providing infrastructure to support global economic growth and to start to close infrastructure gaps is forecast to reach US$94 trillion by 2040, with a further $3.5 trillion needed to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for universal household access to drinking water and electricity by 2030, bringing the total to $97 trillion. Grete Faremo, Executive Director of the United Nations Office for Project Services recommended the need to have an inclusive or otherwise gender action plan in planning and providing these infrastructures if such heavy investment will be made.
This need for a gender action plan for infrastructure is reestablished by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director in her statement ‘Moving away from gender-blind infrastructure design, to one that ensures responsiveness to women’s rights and needs is essential not only to eradicate poverty but to reignite and accelerate progress for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda as a whole.
Speaking to Joan Obeta, a gender activist and communication specialist with ActionAid, Nigeria, a gender action plan for infrastructure should be built around a participatory process that takes the opinion and special needs of women and girls across different quantiles and borders. Going further, she highlighted the need for sex-disaggregated data to inform national policies and generally interventions to alleviate gender-blind infrastructures. ‘Having these data would help to make an informed decision and contextualise interventions’.
It’s also important to have collaborations between National governments and international organisations. For instance, between 2016 and 2019, the UNOPS partnered with the government of Pakistan to develop the Sakura Bus Project. The project provided 14 buses to provide safe mobility for girls and women in the cities of Mardan and Abbottabad in Pakistan.
Improving gender-responsive infrastructure through building consensus and capturing the voices of intended beneficiaries is imperative to achieving the sustainable development goals and other local development targets.