Waste and sanitation workers play a vital role in Bangladesh, cleaning drains and streets, removing rubbish, recovering waste for recycling and emptying toilets to keep them useable.

In 2021 Practical Action conducted in-depth qualitative research to understand the experiences and priorities of women and men with regard to sanitation in low-income settlements in Faridpur and Meherpur, Bangladesh. Presently, public and community toilets in these two cities are failing to meet the needs of women and girls. Failings encompass toilet design, position, facilities, maintenance, and management. The widespread attitudes and behaviours of men and boys towards women and girls accessing and using public and community toilets constitute harassment and intimidation and need to be urgently addressed. While women’s engagement in sanitation governance is supported by policy commitments, in practice, presently women’s voices on municipal committees are ignored and muted.

Waste collectors make their living from the things we throw away; rubbish to us is survival to them. However, a large national study carried out in city corporations and municipalities across Bangladesh has revealed appalling working conditions for waste and sanitation workers. While being responsible for almost all the recycling and recovery of waste in the country, they pay a high price in their own health, dignity, and opportunity to engage with the rest of society. There are systematic ways in which women face further discrimination and risks of violence. Workers are doing their best to organize themselves, but these efforts need to be supported and strengthened.

To achieve the safely managed sanitation target under Sustainable Development Goal 6, the Government of Bangladesh has developed an Institutional and Regulatory Framework for Faecal Sludge Management and National Action Plan. The plan commits the country to gender transformative approaches. Practical Action’s experience of developing an inclusive sanitation system in urban centres in Bangladesh provides useful insights on how this can be achieved. A system
that integrates and formalizes services provided by informal sanitation workers serving low-income communities addresses negative consequences of widespread mismanagement of faecal sludge which disproportionately affect women. The integration of the new system with municipal gender action plans, urban poverty reduction strategies, and sanitation governance enables and supports women and other marginalized communities to influence decision making and access emerging employment and business opportunities.

For the 64 million urban residents of Bangladesh, the services provided by waste and sanitation workers are vital. ˜ey help keep toilets usable, clean drains and streets, remove rubbish, and recover waste for recycling. ˜e majority of these workers are informal, with hazardous working conditions. Rather than being welcomed for their contribution, they face harassment and discrimination from residents and authorities. Explicitly including these groups in existing labour policies would create a new set of expectations for how local authorities, companies, and residents should treat these workers. It would be a step towards transforming the lives of these workers as they serve people and the environment.