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Léo Heller

Léo Heller is UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.  In May 2016, he invited a group of experts,  including one of Simavi’s Programme Officers, to take part in an expert consultation on ‘Gender equality in the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation’.  This provided input to his annual report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2016. We spoke to him about his focus on gender dimensions in realising the human right to water and sanitation.


Why is it important to recognise the human right to sanitation in addition to the human right to water?

“Sanitation was always part of the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and the right to sanitation is an essential component of the human right to an adequate standard of living.  It is inextricably linked to the highest attainable standard of health, and integrally related to the human right to water. The explicit recognition of the human right to sanitation and the human right to water reaffirms that sanitation has distinct features that warrant its own separate recognition and treatment from water in some respects. For example, the right to sanitation requires privacy and dignity too.

Both sanitation and water issues need to be addressed with a comprehensive approach at many levels. However, the recognition of the right to sanitation will serve as leverage to the greater efforts required to bridge the gap between water and sanitation access in many countries. In particular, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a great opportunity to advance the realisation of the right to sanitation.”


You have highlighted the importance of gender equality in the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation. Why is this so important?

“Inequalities between men and women are pervasive in people’s access to water and sanitation and often result in grave human rights violations. Realising equal access to water, sanitation and hygiene can serve as an entry point for promoting women and girls’ right to determine their futures, access  opportunities and resources and control their own lives, both in and outside the home.  Gender equality in the human rights to water and sanitation will not only empower women individually, but also help them overcome poverty and empower their children, families and communities.

A good example of this is menstrual hygiene management, an important but often forgotten component of the human right to water and sanitation. Poor menstruation management has far-reaching consequences for society as a whole and a lack of knowledge, amongst both women and men, reinforces the taboos on this topic. Therefore education, awareness raising and training with both men and women are important ways to overcome the “silence” surrounding menstrual hygiene management. Furthermore, a lack of adequate facilities in public spaces often compromises female participation in public, work and school life. Adequate facilities must therefore be reliably accessible to satisfy all needs related to menstruation during the day and night.”


In order to gather input on your proposed report on Gender Equality in the Realisation of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, you invited experts from different fields, including SRHR and gender issues, to participate in an expert consultation. How did this help?

“The presence of implementing actors and scholars from a variety of fields gave us an opportunity to exchange views on issues that are intertwined and interdependent, and helped us better understand and reconcile the complexity of these issues. We learned about good practices on, for example, how to deliver education on topics that are considered culturally taboo or how to give greater priority to female-specific needs. During the consultation, ‘invisible’ issues and root causes of exclusion and discrimination were also discussed. This led to an increased understanding that any approach to overcoming gender inequalities in the rights to water and sanitation must address women’s strategic needs. This includes eradicating harmful gender stereotypes and structural obstacles, and implementing targeted interventions to address women’s material needs, such as adequate menstrual hygiene facilities. To conclude, the consultation was a good platform to openly discuss interlinked issues and I think that everyone, including myself, left with new knowledge and inspiration.”

You can find the report here and the session at the Human Rights Council here.


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