A recent article (Aug 28, 2018) in UK’s Daily Telegraph screamed “Lack of toilets and water at school puts girls’ education at risk.” The article cited a recent study released by World Health Organization (WHO) that 620 million children lacked access to decent toilets at school. Currently, there are many research studies that report a direct correlation between education success of girls and the number of clean and functioning sanitation facilities in schools. Popular media has also given a lot of attention to this issue. For example, in the film ‘Hidden Figures we see a scene (from a real life incident) of a brilliant female astrophysicist as always late for after-lunch meetings at a NASA research facility working on the Apollo mission due to limited restroom facilities. As an immediate and short-term solution, the male NASA supervisor is shown taking down the sign of restrooms that was located nearby and making it open for all. In Bollywood, recent blockbuster films like ‘Toilet’ and “Pad-man” have boldly connected the critical issue of girl’s sanitation to education success that remains a taboo topic in South Asia.

An Apple Falling Moment

In the summer of 2018, I had an apple falling moment on gender sensitivity that had eluded me and my chosen profession (civil engineering) for as long as I could remember. While visiting a high school that was my father’s alma mater in rural Bangladesh, I noticed unusually longer lines during recess in the girl’s restrooms, in stark contrast to the relatively empty boys’ restrooms. Following up on my curiosity and listening to anecdotes from experts made me realize that mainstream instructional pedagogy in engineering does not equip future engineers to recognize the gender-based sanitary needs in their engineering designs for water sanitation and health (WASH) facilities. The current crop of civil engineers, water specialists and managers are challenged to help girls achieve a successful education experience using their knowledge of hydraulics, pipe/pump/tank design and water management. This lack of gender sensitivity in school’s sanitary designs is not just a developing world problem. This exists in the developed world as well. Many academic buildings at US Universities where classes are now held were originally designed in the early 1940s with the assumption that men would always be the primary student body. For example, in More Hall (built in 1946), at University of Washington where I work, the women’s restrooms are currently inadequate to meet female enrollment needs and class schedules.

The Long-term Solution

The current approach to tackling gender-based problems is to be reactive, such as increasing the number of toilets to improve access to WASH facilities for girls. This is certainly needed. However, this approach ignores the root cause of the problem. We need to change mindsets of future generation of engineers who will be designing WASH infrastructures of the future so that they are able to better integrate gender sensitivity in their physical designs. It took watching long lines of girls banging on the toilet doors during recess in a remote Bangladesh school for me to finally accept that we are doing something fundamentally wrong as instructors in the way we train our civil and public health/water engineers.

The first step to a long-term solution is to assimilate the missing link of gender sensitivity in engineering design and curriculum. We need to make future civil, water engineers and their professional bodies (such as American Society of Civil Engineers -ASCE) more cognizant of gender issues. We need to revise curriculum and current design and management practices to teach students in engineering classrooms that when they design WASH facilities in educational institutions, they must factor gender and sanitary needs of all students as a clear design criterion. Furthermore, this issue needs to get official recognition by professional bodies such as the ASCE and other organizations that have the mandate to set design guidelines that most of the world follows as an accepted standard.

Image: “Outhouse” by Jim Bahn, Creative Commons.

About the Author: Faisal Hossain is a Professor at University of Washington in the Department Civil and Environmental Engineering. He can be reached at fhossain@uw.edu

About The Author

Faisal Hossain enjoys interacting with students at all levels and disciplines as part of his day job as a faculty in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington. His night job where he devotes an equal amount of energy is about film-making and communication of science. He uses these to build bridges between communities and solve pressing problems for society.  His research group at University of Washington focuses on improving livelihoods in challenging environments through sustainable application of earth science, remote sensing and advanced information technology to improve security for water, energy and food at local and regional scales. His capacity building and education initiatives involving satellite remote sensing has resulted in several independently-owned satellite management system for Governments of several Asian nations for improved water, food and energy security. Currently, he serves as Editor for Journal of Hydrometeorology and Applications lead for Science Team of Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) Satellite Mission that is scheduled for launch in 2021. He initiated the Engineering Student Film Contest at University of Washington in 2017 that is now planned as the nation's first and bi-annual student film festival for STEM majors as a way to explore the arts.