Sanitation for women and girls in Nairobi’s informal settlements

[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Walking in the informal settlements of Mathare, Korogocho and Viwandani in Nairobi, one is confronted with a disturbing smell of human waste mixed with raw sewage and rotten garbage. Within the first few minutes, the Kenyan heat acts to intensify these smells which burn the eyes and nose. Amidst all this waste, the streets are busy with women, men, girls and boys living and tending to their everyday lives. Within these settlements, access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is a challenge. Lack of awareness of safe water, sanitation and hygiene practices can affect all members of the family, both adults and children. Women and girls, meanwhile, have distinctive sanitation needs: WASH programs designed to address these needs make vital contributions to the overall empowerment of women and girls (WaterAid 2018). 

Women in Kenya typically have the responsibility for both procuring and using water for their households. A woman who cannot clean her house, provide food and keep the water pot always full of drinking water is scorned and loses the trust and love of her husband. Due to this cultural norm, women struggle to find water at any cost and may end up providing their families with water from questionable sources. Women in informal settlements are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to water and sanitation, with challenges ranging from unsafe drinking water and absence of proper sanitation to lack of hand washing facilities. The work of fetching water and accessing poor sanitation facilities can also put women and girls at risk for violence. 

Conversations with women in these informal settlements revealed how they cope with lack of toilet facilities. During a focus group discussion, women confided that they find it difficult to go to the toilet, especially at night, due to fear of being raped while walking to a distant toilet facility. To mitigate the danger of leaving the safety of their homes at night, women have resorted using the “flying toilet” method of disposing of human waste. This practice requires one to defecate in a plastic bag and throw it as far as possible from the house, usually in the late night or early morning hours. This practice exacerbates the problem of poor sanitation within the settlements. 

Women also reported that finding water to prepare food, wash family clothes and clean the house is a challenge. Without access to city-supplied water, women depend on vendors who unscrupulously break into the water pipes that pass through the informal settlement and steal water, which is then sold to residents of the informal communities at exorbitant prices. Due to this practice, women with limited income find it difficult to cope with household water needs. 

Households in informal settlements routinely buy food from street vendors because it is quick and easy, requiring minimal energy of preparation. Families also save on fuel, time and water for washing up the dishes when they buy food from street vendors. However, the hygienic practices of the street vendors are questionable at best. Purchasing this convenient food on the street can contribute to illnesses within the family. 

The WASH challenges facing households in Nairobi’s informal settlements are varied and numerous. One way that MCC and its partners seek to address the WASH challenges faced by these households—and especially by women and girls in these households—is through school-based initiatives that focus on the distinctive hygiene needs faced by adolescent girls and that increase access to safe drinking water.  

In a survey carried out in an informal community in Nairobi, a group of 25 schoolgirls aged 12 to 15 years highlighted the challenges these girls face regarding menstrual hygiene and the negative impact these challenges have on their schooling. Up to 60% of the girls found it difficult to come to school during menstruation and stated that they missed an average of 36 days of school in a year. The girls attributed their absences to cramps, the lack of a place to dispose of sanitation materials and not having proper sanitary towels to protect them during the day at school. Several of MCC’s partners are addressing the need for schoolgirls to have access to menstrual hygiene supplies by providing reusable and disposable sanitary pads. These projects are recording a decrease in absenteeism for girl students, a decrease attributed to the girls’ access to sanitary products.  

MCC funding also makes it possible for Kenyan organizations to increase access to safe drinking water for households in the informal settlements by training children and families how to purify drinking water using the Solar Disinfection (SODIS) method. This method uses transparent PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles and the sun’s ultraviolet rays to purify water. SODIS represents a low-cost solution that even economically marginalized families can use. WASH teams organized by MCC’s Kenyan partners offer training to introduce the SODIS method and provide ongoing follow-up to support families as they begin using this sustainable water purification method. 

These school-based WASH initiatives emerged after listening to women and girls about what challenges they face when it comes to ensuring their families have clean water and to meeting their hygiene needs. Both the menstrual hygiene and the solar disinfection programs have contributed to significant improvements in the lives of students and the broader population of Nairobi’s informal communities. School teachers, administrators and parents have all bought into these initiatives and testify to their impact. The community- and family-based ownership of these WASH initiatives will help guarantee the sustainability of the positive impacts of these efforts to assist Nairobi’s informal communities in having adequate water, sanitation and hygiene resources.  

Jane Otai previously served as a consultant for MCC Kenya school WASH project and currently works for Jhpiegoan international, non-profit health organization affiliated with The Johns Hopkins University.

Learn More 

Amnesty International. “Risking Rape to Reach a Toilet: Women’s Experience in the Slums of Nairobi, Kenya.” July 7, 2010. Available at documents/AFR32/006/2010/en/ 

Bitew, Bikes Destaw; Yigzaw Kebede, Gashaw Andargie Biks; and Takele Tadesse Adafrie.  “The Effect of SODIS Water Treatment Intervention at the Household Level in Reducing Diarrheal Incidence among Children under 5 years of Age: A Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial in Dabat District, Northwest Ethiopia.” July 31, 2018. Available at  

Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), in cooperation with UN-HABITAT and the World Health Organization (WHO). “The Right to Water.” Fact Sheet No. 35. 2010. Available at Publications/FactSheet35en.pdf. 

WaterAid. “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: A Pathway to Realizing Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls.” 2018. Available at 


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