Five human rights principles that put people centre stage in water, sanitation and hygiene responses to COVID-19

Posted on WaterAid blog on 1 May 2020 in Equality, inclusion and human rights, re-posted on RWSN blog on 4 May 2020.
Authors: Louisa Gosling, Naomi Carrard, Hannah Neumeyer and Virginia Roaf. 

WaterAid/ James Kiyimba

Empowering and increasing the dignity of marginalised and vulnerable people will help us emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with healthier societies and revitalised opportunities for development and peace. Louisa Gosling, Naomi Carrard, Hannah Neumeyer and Virginia Roaf outline how applying the principles of human rights can save lives now and in the future.

The virus does not discriminate, but its impacts – and our responses – do.

– UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

We are all doing our best to minimise the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Overwhelmingly, the response across the world has been to reduce transmission through distancing, handwashing and strengthening public health systems. We know water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are central to the COVID-19 response. So how can human rights help?

A human rights lens reveals unexpected opportunities as we respond to the current crisis and plan for the future. Applying the human rights principles – equality and non-discrimination, participation, transparency, accountability and sustainability – deepens WASH responses to COVID-19, helping to both protect everyone now and build more equitable and sustainable societies.

What we do now will shape the post-COVID world and our resilience to future threats, whether climate change or other health crises.

Equality and non-discrimination

The risks COVID-19 presents are not borne equally. We are seeing evidence of this all over the world. Older people, people with health problems, people living in inadequate housing (especially those in dense settlements without access to basic services), homeless people, migrant workers, and those who have to go out to work every day to survive or who are fulfilling a necessary if undervalued role such as care work or street cleaning – all are at higher risk of contracting the virus because they are less able to protect themselves with good hygiene and physical distancing. They are also most severely affected by distancing or lockdown provisions, with eked-out livelihoods vanishing or curtailed.

People who cannot afford to pay their water and sanitation bills risk losing essential services. Independent UN human rights experts have called on governments to prohibit disconnections and to extend continuous access to water for people who don’t already have it. Governments are obliged to ensure access to services. They must intervene so that service providers continue to deliver, and do not face financial challenges in doing so. This is no small feat, given the breadth and diversity of public, private and community water and sanitation services providers, but reinforcing the recognition of these basic services as public services is critical for the realisation of human rights.

Sanitation workers perform vital work and yet are especially exposed to COVID-19. They are often discriminated against, working without protection or dignity. Cleaners, care workers and the many women and children who fetch water for themselves and for others are also at risk of being exposed to the virus.

As with many areas of development, women – despite their central role – are often ignored or marginalised in decisions, so their needs and the specific risks they face are not considered. But many organisations are researching and documenting the widespread gendered implications of the pandemic and response measures. Gender justice should be central in the WASH response, and there is a growing imperative for collaboration with women’s organisations and leaders to find ways to do this.

Human rights to water and sanitation (and other rights) demand that our response to COVID-19 addresses these inequalities. They promote and protect the voices of people who are discriminated against, marginalised and vulnerable, and ensure responses to the virus proactively include them.

Collaboration between WASH actors and organisations representing the rights of marginalised groups – including those focused on disability, age, slum dwellers, prisoners, children or women – brings new understanding and action that ensures inclusive water and sanitation services. Innovative solutions are already emerging from such collaboration, making hygiene messaging and handwashing facilities accessible for people with disabilities, and relevant to diverse populations in challenging settings.WaterAid Papua New Guinea giving loud hailers, inks and papers for printing awareness-raising materials, supporting local health authorities in preparedness for COVID-19.

WaterAid Papua New Guinea

WaterAid Papua New Guinea has provided loud hailers, inks and papers for printing awareness-raising materials, supporting local health authorities in preparedness for COVID-19.


The AIDS and Ebola epidemics taught the importance of engaging with affected communities. Building trust between government and civil society is critical for suitability, effectiveness and sustainability of responses, to ensure the smooth flow of accurate and helpful information and to avoid indirect or unintended harm.

Physical distancing measures are creating more barriers for many and reducing participation and voice, particularly where participatory processes now rely on the internet. There is a proven gender digital divide, exacerbated by poverty. For example, OECD data indicate that, globally, women are 26% less likely than men are to have a smartphone (70% less likely in South Asia and 34% in Africa).

National coordination mechanisms (such as WASH clusters) should include civil society and organisations representing different sections of the population. This can help governments identify vulnerable people and put in place measures that effectively support those who would otherwise be left behind.

Looking further ahead, making modes of participation and partnership more inclusive could lay foundations for more locally led development beyond the pandemic.

Transparency and access to information

Transparency and access to information are intrinsically linked to participation. If information is not accurate or well-understood by the intended recipients, it has no value. Further, while clear and consistent messaging is important to reinforce behaviour change, it should be tailored to differing contexts. How can people living in informal settlements or remote rural areas respond to ‘wash your hands’ messaging if they don’t have a secure, on-plot supply of water?

To reach the most marginalised people we need to be creative, and to communicate in local languages through a range of channels that are appropriate for the places and people concerned. For example, many countries use radio, such as TanzaniaRwanda and Nepal, where jingles are even broadcast by loud-hailers to communities without FM coverage. Sign language and braille can be used to reach people with hearing or visual impairments.

In Nigeria, local civil society networks and the media are communicating through network members in communities to share information and drive campaigns on improving WASH in healthcare facilities. More ideas can be found in resources such as BBC Media Action’s Guide to community engagement at a distance.

And in South Africa residents in informal settlements are monitoring water and sanitation access during the COVID-19 crisis, sharing the data with city authorities and the media. This initiative has already resulted in improved service delivery and new channels of collaboration with city authorities.A man reads awareness-raising messages through a loud hailer around a community in Bangladesh.WaterAid Bangladesh

A man reads awareness-raising messages through a loud hailer around a community in Bangladesh.


Accountability between governments, civil society and development agencies is as critical in a crisis as ever. We are seeing unprecedented funds raised and distributed in response to COVID-19, but how these funds will be used and accounted for is not always clear.

Accountability is essential for minimising corruption and for achieving services that are equitable, sustainable and high quality. This is important both for the emergency procurement and distribution of benefits in the immediate response to COVID-19, and for the long-term sustainability of WASH services.

Unfortunately, accountability mechanisms and relationships in WASH are often weak. Civil society networks must be able to advocate for transparency and accountability in the WASH response to this crisis, to monitor how much of the funding made available for the pandemic is invested with human rights considerations and for the sustainable development of WASH services. There may be more opportunities because the pandemic has raised the profile of WASH, which can create space for WASH actors to contribute to broader accountability initiatives. An example linking WASH to the coalition on peace building and state building in Sierra Leone demonstrates this potential.

Governments are also accountable for the way they are imposing containment measures that limit people’s ability to go out, to work, to fetch water and to use toilets. In many countries we are seeing excessive force used to ensure compliance with lockdown, criminalising people who must leave their home to meet basic needs. This violates human rights and can be detrimental to reducing the spread of the virus if it creates fear and destroys trust between government and communities, as learned from the HIV response. In moments of disaster response the values of open government can come under intense pressure – but can also meaningfully contribute to better outcomes where there is strong cooperation and trust between the authorities and the people.


Poor sustainability and service levels are already a huge barrier to the realisation of people’s rights to water and sanitation, often due to weak systems. These can be strengthened or weakened by the way in which we respond to this pandemic.

Sustainability is a human rights principle – we must not lose progress that has been made. The hope for the post-COVID-19 world – if we use human rights to guide us – is to be in a stronger position than before. This means improved access to water and sanitation for vulnerable and marginalised people; that we more deeply understand how to eliminate inequalities; and that we are more prepared for future health risks and the inevitable impacts of climate change.

How we emerge from COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic will have profound and long-lasting impacts on how we all live, work and relate to each other. We are still barely able to imagine the immensity of economic and social change that will emerge.

Human rights put people centre-stage. Empowering and increasing the dignity of people who are currently marginalised and vulnerable will help us emerge from this crisis with healthier societies and revitalised opportunities for development and peace. Human rights principles must guide our responses and will lead us to better, more inclusive, more sustainable results, protecting and saving lives now, and in the future.

Louisa Gosling is WaterAid’s Senior WASH Manager for Accountability and Rights, Naomi Carrard is Research Director at Institute for Sustainable Futures – University of Technology Sydney, Hannah Neumeyer is Head of Human Rights at WASH United and Virginia Roaf is Senior Advisor at Sanitation and Water for All.

This blog is the result of collaboration involving WaterAid, Sanitation and Water for All, Institute for Sustainable Futures – University of Technology Sydney, WASH United, End Water Poverty, Kewasnet, Rural Water Supply Network, Water Youth Network, Hope Spring Water, Simavi and Water Integrity Network.

Authors: Louisa Gosling, Naomi Carrard, Hannah Neumeyer and Virginia Roaf. 

Pipe dream or possible: Reaching the furthest behind first in WASH sector?

By Sara Ahrari (Simavi) RWSN Theme Leader for the Leave no one behind Theme.

Simavi’s Programme Manager, Sara Ahrari, moderated a side event during the UNC Water and Health Conference on 1 November 2018. This event was convened by Simavi, Wateraid, Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN),London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and World Vision (WV). The purpose of this section was to reflect jointly on “who are left behind” from “Use of” and “Participation in decision making processes related to” WASH services, “what are the barriers for their inclusion” and “what can be done and what roles can different WASH stakeholder play to accelerate their inclusion”.

The session started with a short introduction to “Leave No One Behind” Concept in the WASH sector. Afterwards the participants were divided into groups to focus on a specific scenario related to multiple exclusion factors facing by different personas. Initially 8 personas were defined (for elaborated description of the personas, please click here) but based on the number of participants and their interests only 6 personas were discussed in the groups.

The groups were asked to work through the following process to come to recommendations (in form of a pitch) on how “Leave No One Behind” can be reached for the persona in their scenario:

  • Illustrate using mind map technique draw the barriers faced by the persona as a group
  • Inspire list anything that inspires them as individuals (people, products, programmes, services, innovations, insights, etc.).
  • Selection come up with as many ideas/ solutions/ practical recommendation to address the barriers faced by the persona, then cluster all the ideas and select one idea as a group to further work on it
  • Sketching draw a storyboard using pictures representing the idea or recommendation, who will be impacted by the idea, what would be their experience, the way idea would be rolled out. Prepare your pitch.
  • Pitch The idea to the plenary in one minute.

After the group work a Ms. Ellen Greggio presented Wateraid experience on using Washington Indicators on disability in their monitoring including the challenges and insights that application of such tool might entail.

Key results of the group exercise

Group 1-Mariette: who lives on daily wages and is a member of WASH committee.






The mind mapping exercise had led to identification of poverty, no support at household when husband is away, time constrain, lack of community support and lack of government support as main barriers faced by Mariette. The selected solutions were:

  • Share responsibilities: train more members of the committee to be able to do repair work, make sure roles are divided properly and backed up.
  • Increase awareness among community members/users: to pay their WASH costs (which are affordable) so that the repair work can be paid for; other support in forms of other incentives (i.e. help with the children) and manage expectations
  • Create a safe platform for everyone to share the experiences and challenges.

An interesting discussion which took place during the group exercise was selection of the “right” person for the committee and “dividing the roles”. While very valid points, one should be careful that defining “right” as people who have time to participate can lead to “leaving those who can’t afford to participate behind”. Also when dividing the roles, it is important to make sure that dominating community role (namely men being the decision maker and women doing the work) will not influence the decision making process. The group pitch can be seen here.

Group 2- Sharon: A young girl living with HIV/AIDS who produces & sells low cost sanitary napkin.

The participants indicated that Sharon is disempowered due to stigma and lack of access to education, has limited voice, suffers from trauma due to loss of her parents and lack of institutionalized support for the poor. The suggested solutions included:

  • Improved access to WASH services: City authorities, utilities and local government need to ensure that proper pro-poor WASH policies and services are available, provide subsidized tariffs, access to affordable sanitation and hygienic products. Advocacy organisations can influence policies to ensure that this will take place.
  • Increased learning opportunities: NGOs, faith-based organisations or vocational training institutes can provide skill and entrepreneurship training as well as scholarships.
  • Enhanced link to social services: Government of NGOs can create youth homes, facilitate peer support and mentorship (female, people with HIV/AIDS and business mentorships).

The group pitch can be seen here.

Group 3- Maria: :A visually impaired girl who is sent out to city to live with her aunt in slum area and earn income through begging on streets.

The main barrier identified for this persona was her visual impairment which in her situation causes dependency on family and strangers for support, poverty, lack of accessible WASH service and transport, unsafe and non-trustworthy environment at home and outside, which leads to mental health problems feeling as a burden and stress.

The group concluded that if Maria can be provided access to school and kept at school, many of these barriers would be overcome. This means that schools need to have inclusive education as well as access to safe sanitation and water. Schools also can facilitate “Eye vision test” and promote measures for preventable visual impairments not to occur. There should be also safe transport to and from school. Also the care-givers (aunt or her family) need to be supported to have increased income. Depending on the country, public awareness raising needs to be done on right to education, children’s right and disability rights. Legal protection and safety nets supports need to be provided to families with people with disabilities. The people with disability also need to be empowered and equipped with skills and knowledge which allows them to live an independent life.
The final pitch of the group can be seen here.

Group 4- Bilegt: A nomad man whose source of water is diminishing and has no access to proper sanitation.

The group had identified the following barriers:

  • Environmental: harsh environment due to increased effect of climate change and scarcity of water resources.
  • Social/cultural: due to challenges, there is increased migration to the cities which for Bilegt it means losing “his sense of being” and social support system.
  • Political: limited political voice and influence of population, conflict with companies, no investment in hydrogeological survey.
  • Economic: limited access to financial resources, loss of traditional income generating activity.
  • Physical: difficulty of access due to mobility.

An integrated understanding of solutions, combining bottom-up (socially inclusive) and top-down (sustainable solutions) approaches would be needed according to the group to remove these barriers. The group pitch can be see here.

Group 5- Ruksana: A 15 years old girl without forearms who is pregnant with her 2nd child.

The group identified the main barriers faced by Ruksana to be poverty, lack of support from family or community members, lack of education/trainings, disability, limited availability and distance from water sources, insecure feeling when using the latrine, social stigma inside and outside, married as a child and child pregnancy. The solution thought by group were:

  • Technological: Accessible toilets with locks which can be operated by people with disability, technology to support mobility, household access to safe drinking water (i.e. through filters).
  • Services: Accessible education/skill building centres with appropriate courses and technology for people with disability, identification & support by local government, regular follow up/ home visit by government/community health workers, optional services to deliver safe water.
  • Health: family planning methods (cycle beads), regular home visits by health workers.
  • Social Engagement & awareness: Awareness raising among different stakeholders (community leaders, men, local government, etc.).
  • Economic development: Increased livelihood options at the community level.

The group identified access to water and family planning option as priority to improve Ruksana’s situation.
You can see the pitch the group presented here.

Group 6- Amin: A district engineer in charge of WASH service delivery with insufficient resources, needing to prioritise different areas within the district.

Amin’s challenges were found to be rooted in legal, financial, knowledge, political barriers at the national level and cultural, knowledge, communication and financial at the community level. Lack of transparency and proper coordination between these two levels were also identified as a barrier. The solutions suggested by the group were:

  •  Encourage private sector financial investment.
  • Dedicated structural leadership support to district level staffs.
  • District management support in communication and planning.
  • Town halls communicating plans to the communities.
  • Capacity building at all levels.
  • Relationship building based on trust.
  • Cultivating demands and grassroots community planning.
  • Transfer of power & decision making rights from national to district and lower levels.

The group’s pitch can be seen here.

Reflection and way forward

The side event had brought together participants from the different background and organisations, namely NGOs, knowledge institutes and government. As we have defined “Active contribution of the participants and lots of ideas not to leave anyone behind” as one of the success indicators for this event, we can say that it a very successful event thanks to the energetic and engaged participants.

We still hope to receive more stories of success (or constructive failures) and increased collaboration on “Leave No One Behind” and to “Reach the Furthest Behind First”. The conveners will continue to promote the dialogue on the topic in different platforms, in particular RWSN “Leave No One Behind” discussion group.

Participants’ feedback

Lena Bunzenmeyer, Global WASH Advisor, CAWST: “ I truly enjoyed the participatory session and I definitely learned a lot. It was by far my favourite session of the entire conference! Would it be possible to get a copy of the PowerPoint presentation that went along with the session? I’d like to bring it up at CAWST as an example of both participatory learning (we love learning new techniques from others!) and also how to approach the topic of inclusive WASH services. Thank you again for your excellent facilitation!”

Reposted with thanks from Simavi; the original blogpost is available here:

Photo credits: Tom Flunder