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UNDA Project 1819AE: Serbia - Impact of access to sanitation on women’s health

Swing Tara

Serbia has recently adopted a Law on Gender Equality, which includes an article on environmental protection which stipulates that equal opportunities are required for men and women in the system of managing natural resources. Moreover, as per this law, the ministry responsible for environmental protection must integrate a gender perspective in the process of planning, management and implementation of plans, projects and policies. With several other policies related to gender mainstreaming in environmental matters and elsewhere, this law represents an important step towards achieving gender equality in the country. In order to support this goal, the UNECE has supported Serbia in an often-neglected aspect of gender inequality: access to sanitation and women’s health.

A general overview of existing knowledge related to the impact of access to sanitation on women’s health was first developed, which examined issues on: the impacts of sanitation on maternal and new-born health; the health impacts of sanitation in menstrual hygiene management; women’s health and sanitation in marginalised populations; the mental health impacts of lack of sanitation on women’s health; and human rights and gender aspects of women’s health and access to sanitation. The report also noted that, despite the large amount of research on these issues, policy makers have not implemented policies to address the health impacts of sanitation conditions on women’s health, largely due to gender discrimination.

Given the overdue implementation of sanitation policies integrating women’s health needs, it is an important step for Serbia to analyse the existing data related to the impact of access to sanitation on women’s health. Three critical factors were identified by the UNECE in attaining equitable access to water and sanitation in Serbia: reducing geographical disparities; overcoming the barriers faced by vulnerable and marginalised groups and addressing financial affordability issues.

A policy brief was then produced to support Serbia in this regard. The policy brief first identifies several areas that require policy and intervention actions. Across the board for all aspects of gender mainstreaming and achieving gender equality is collecting and analysing sex-disaggregated data. This is a particularly acute problem in Serbia since data available in terms of sanitation and the health impacts of sanitation are not predominantly sex disaggregated. This makes it difficult, or rather impossible, to make proper assessments of the comparative situation and to implement subsequent gender responsive policies.

Another area identified for action is equal access to sanitation services and the utilization of those services. A study was undertaken in Serbian schools to evaluate the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) level that schools provide to pupils. Whilst the levels of sanitation were positive across schools, still, 60% of children avoid using toilets and hygiene facilities. This gap is significantly wider in rural primary schools ad opposed to secondary schools and schools in towns and cities. Finally, access to sanitation in households is a priority area for action most urgently in the poorest settlements and especially for Roma women in rural areas.

The policy brief also identified more general principles of gender mainstreaming to be applied, including achieving gender balance in decision-making and politics; equal treatment integrated into the steering process; and the integration of gender dimension throughout financial framework.

Whilst these recommendations and guidance will support the access of women to sanitation with the aim of protecting women’s health, such gender mainstreaming approaches can be carried over into other topics to achieve gender equality.