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What is gender-blind infrastructure and what can we do about it?

23 June 2024

For this International Women in Engineering Day, we explore how engineers contribute to a more equitable world.

What is gender-blind infrastructure and what can we do about it?
Transport must be safe in order to be accessible for all. Image credit: Shutterstock

“Around the world, too many women and girls miss out on opportunities to improve their lives for a simple reason: the infrastructure around them isn’t built with their needs in mind.”

So writes Grete Faremo, executive director of the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS).

In 2020, UNOPS shared a report exploring the effects of gender-blind infrastructure on women and girls, and what engineers can do to address this.

What is gender-blind infrastructure?

Gender-blind infrastructure fails to consider the needs, roles and responsibilities of women and children, and how this affects their ability to use these services.

Infrastructure has a long lifecycle. Making decisions that ignore the needs of women can reinforce inequity for decades to come.

It follows that the reverse is also true: if changes to how we build, maintain and operate infrastructure are made now, it can have long-standing benefits for all.

As the report highlights, “Our world cannot achieve sustainable development without closing the gender gap”.

Here are a few ways engineers can help enhance the lives of women.

1. Energy

A lack or unreliable supply of electricity reduces the productive hours in a day and increases unpaid domestic work.

Productive hours are those when people can spend time achieving goals, making money or taking part in leisure activities. Light enables this.

More than 3 billion people in the world rely on combustible fuels for household energy needs.

It often falls on women and girls to obtain this fuel (like wood and dung) in rural homes.

What engineers can do

Engineers can help by putting in place reliable, renewable energy systems, such as off-grid solar solutions.

This can lengthen the day by one to two hours.

It can also power devices (like water pumps) that cut down the time it takes to do domestic work, freeing up the day for other activities.

Using clean energy also benefits health and wellbeing, by reducing air pollution and powering medical centres, for example.

In Sierra Leone, UNOPS found that having stable lighting in health centres, like maternity clinics, has increased how many women visit the centres to give birth in safer environments.

2. Transport

Gender-blind transport systems limit women’s and girls’ ability to get to where they need to go.

The UNOPS report highlights that gender-based violence often happens on and around public transport.

In France, 39% of sexual assaults against women happened on transit and at train stations.

In India, women would rather attend lower-quality colleges, pay up to double the tuition and travel further every day, just to use safer transport.

What can engineers do?

Engineers can help by:

  • ensuring good visibility in public spaces;
  • improving lighting in waiting areas and walkways;
  • making walkways wide enough for pushchairs and families;
  • installing CCTV;
  • designing women-only public transport options; and
  • using digital mobility safety apps (where women can share details of their journeys with trusted friends and family).

The Sakura Bus Project in Pakistan is helping women and girls travel safely by providing buses that only women and children under 12 can use.

UNOPS built 31 new bus stops, ensuring that these are always well lit by solar power.

3. Water and sanitation

When women’s and girls’ water needs aren’t considered, it affects their health, education and economic opportunities.

For example, poor water and sanitation facilities for menstrual hygiene can increase the risk of catching urinary tract infections (UTIs). It can also get in the way of regular school attendance.

Women also tend to be responsible for caring for family members who fall ill due to unsafe drinking water.

And in households that lack access to water, the burden of collecting water more often falls on women and girls.

In rural areas, needing to use dark and inappropriately located toilets also increases the risk of gender-related violence.

What can engineers do?

Including women in water governance and management is key to ensure their needs are considered.

Safe, clean, well-lit and well-located toilets with running water and soap that include menstrual hygiene facilities (like specific bins) are essential to provide equitable access to education and employment opportunities.

The Maldives struggles with a lack of freshwater. UNOPS has been helping the country by designing and building a water treatment and distribution system that reduces the need for water collection.

Inclusivity in the infrastructure lifecycle

Engineers have an opportunity to help remove barriers and empower women and girls.

It’s essential that women are part of designing and actioning these solutions, so that they respond to their specific needs.

It’s also key to understand the local context and how this affects women’s and girls’ responsibilities, opportunities and barriers.

Inclusivity must be embedded at every stage of a project:

  • Planning: by completing a gender analysis and preparing a gender action plan (GAP) project teams can identify and plan for different needs, roles, responsibilities, opportunities, barriers and use of resources.
  • Design: the needs of women and girls must be incorporated into designs (ie. Including breastfeeding rooms in public buildings). Use design codes, standards and guidance that consider gender as much as possible.
  • Procurement: procurement frameworks that consider gender can increase the participation of women-owned businesses in the tendering process. Project teams can also request that bidders demonstrate a commitment to gender equality in their proposal.
  • Construction: promote diversity in the workforce by removing barriers to construction jobs. For example, have policies against sexual harassment and gender discrimination in place, offer equal pay, provide facilities for menstrual hygiene, and more.
  • Management: assess whether the project meets all end users’ needs – especially women and girls – and report on its performance and outcomes to learn more about how infrastructure can reduce inequality.

These are just some ways that engineers working in infrastructure can help create a world where everyone can thrive.

For more details, read the UNOPS report.

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  • Ana Bottle, digital content editor at ICE