The role of intersectionality in uncovering hidden issues for development

Let’s look at the bigger picture

File:Intersectionality.png” by Spaynton is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

In this blog, I reflect on the lessons I have learned over the past few years on the role of intersectionality in global development. Imagine that you are on a field visit in a rural village in India to try to understand how a sanitation facility which you have been involved in constructing has impacted the community. You are trying to see if it has generated health benefits for everyone, and that every person can use it with ease. It may seem like a good idea to talk to different people who have an obvious marker of their identity: a woman, a man, an older person, or a girl for example. It may also seem obvious to ask them about their experience of the facility on the basis of these specific identities. How does a man’s experience of the facility differ from a woman’s? This would provide you a picture of gendered needs. But, what if the man was disabled? Did you speak to a woman of high caste and status in the community, or is she from a low caste? It is important to look at the bigger picture of people’s lives and situations and how different aspects of their identities may come together to leave some of their issues hidden. To look at these blind spots, development professionals need to think about intersectionality.

What is intersectionality?

The term ‘intersectionality’ was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw when she was trying to compare the legal status of  black women, black men and white men in the USA. As a lawyer, Crenshaw saw that working-class black women were being discriminated against on the basis of their gender and their race in historical court cases in America, because of the way in which being black, female and working class came together. Intersectionality can be understood through the analogy of a road junction. Some people stand at the crossroads where different identities come from different directions. We can understand intersectionality as the accidents which occur at these junctions, but these accidents are not reported and neglected. Intersectionality recognises that people can be discriminated against in multiple ways, but this is often missed and hides people’s identities. These people, and their experiences are therefore neglected because of different forms of discrimination, and they are left behind. To discover hidden needs for infrastructure such as WASH, it is important that we do not look at identities individually, as that risks missing issues. There are a few examples of how intersectionality has been considered in WASH research, from which we can gain a better understanding of its importance to our work.

Caste, gender and drinking water in India

Daily life in the slum – Dharavi – Mumbai” by Thomas Galvez is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In India, Dalit women’s experiences reflect how their overlapping identities of being women and from a low caste impacts upon their access to drinking water. Dalits are generally excluded from water sources in a ritualistic way because of their caste and low-status in society, and Dalit women are excluded from the traditional women’s role of water management. In a study by Deepa Joshi (2011), Dalit women in Chuni village in the Himalayas were excluded from managing the water sources. The crossover of being women and of low caste led to the Dalit women being seen to pollute the drinking water if they touched it, and so water became a way to exclude the women from the community (Joshi and Fawcett, 2006). Drinking water policy in India did consider disparities in access to water on the basis of gender and caste. However, caste and gender were disaggregated, meaning that there was less scope for providing welfare for Dalit women, who were missed out  because of their intersectionality.  Despite being willing to pay for piped water through a demand-led scheme, Dalit women could not afford to pay for it. Development policy needs to consider intersectionality such as gender and caste crossovers to be more inclusive, and to avoid exacerbating socio-cultural divides in contexts such as India.

WASH for perimenopausal women in Ghana

I recently explored the WASH needs of perimenopausal women for my PhD in two urban communities in Accra and Kumasi in Ghana. The women I worked with shared their experiences of their various needs for bathing, laundry, and effective menstrual hygiene management to manage their symptoms as they made the transition to menopause. As I sat with them in their compounds, they shared their WASH experiences with me for the very first time. The WASH needs of perimenopausal women had never been recorded before, and it became clear to me that these issues were missed because of the overlapping identities of the women I spoke with. They were women, in a low-income community, older, and experiencing the perimenopause, which is a women’s issue that is not widely discussed in patriarchal Ghana, and therefore not given attention. In our conversations, they told me how their intersecting identities posed challenges. Getting older made fulfilling their traditional women’s role of water collection more difficult due to joint pain. Their age and gender made it harder to find work to be able to afford sanitary pads for heavy periods during the perimenopause. The combination of being older women on low incomes shaped their everyday experiences of WASH. It is important to examine the different factors which can exclude certain people’s needs for inclusive services if we are to address hiddenness in development.

Gender equality and disability inclusion in WASH in Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea

Gender issues and the needs of people with disabilities have received wide-spread attention in WASH, but they have sparsely been given attention collectively. A study by WaterAid, CBM Australia and Di Kilsby Consulting in Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea demonstrated that an individual’s access to WASH was shaped by various factors including age, gender, disability and family status. Women with less severe disabilities actually had the most difficulty in accessing WASH, because they were expected to perform gender-related WASH duties. The needs of less severe disabilities were less obvious, even though conducting their duties was difficult. Women who had more severe disabilities, and/or were older, did not have the same expectations placed on them such as collecting water. The women caring for disabled family members had an increased workload and pressure, because they were carers, as well as women expected to fulfil their traditional gender-related duties. This study recommended that ‘twin track’ approaches need to be adopted in WASH programmes, where factors such as gender and disability are considered together. By doing so, it makes it easier to adopt a ‘rights-based’ approach to ensuring development programmes are inclusive, because different needs arising from these different identities are recognised.

Menstrual hygiene for girls with disabilities in Nepal

Recently, Jane Wilbur at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and her colleagues have been researching the menstrual hygiene needs of adolescent girls with disabilities. There has been significant attention on disability and on menstrual health in the past decade. But we need to remember too, that many disabled girls and women menstruate. Wilbur et al’s work has recognised the barriers that some adolescent girls in Nepal as a direct result of their disability and gender. Using methods such as PhotoVoice, this study has revealed some of the lesser known issues relating to menstrual hygiene that girls with disabilities experience. Accessing toilets to change menstrual materials is challenging for disabled girls if the floor is slippery, or their privacy and dignity can be compromised if the lock on the toilet is fiddly and they cannot use it.  Accessible toilets with seats, easy access to clean water, and adequate training on menstrual hygiene for girls with intellectual disabilities, all matter in making sure the needs of those who are at the intersection of gender and disability are met through inclusive infrastructure.

What can we learn from intersectionality for international development?

The examples I have outlined through this blog seek to show how the abstract concept of ‘intersectionality’ matters in making sure we ‘do development better’. It is important for us to recognise the experiences of those who are at the crossroads of different identities, so that they do not fall through the cracks. A practical example of this is UNICEF, WaterAid and WSUP’s (2018) female-friendly community toilet guide, which clearly defines the need for facilities to be accessible to all users. It is no good constructing a toilet for disabled schoolgirls, if the infrastructure is physically accessible but they cannot dispose of menstrual pads as there is no disposal facility provided. Intersectionality is important for us to recognise and access hidden issues for inclusive infrastructure, so that no one is disadvantaged because of their overlapping issues. In order to achieve the SDGs, let’s keep the bigger picture of everyone’s intersectionality at the heart of our work.

Further reading

Bhakta A, Fisher J and Reed BJ (2019) ‘Unveiling hidden knowledge: discovering the hygiene needs of perimenopausal women’  International Development Planning Review Vol. 41 No. 2 pp. 149-171

Bhakta A (2020) The use of PhotoVoice in the WASH sector Learning Brief, Brighton: Sanitation Learning Hub, Institute of Development Studies

Crenshaw, K (1991) ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’ Stanford Law Review Vol. 43 No. 6 pp.1241-1299

Joshi, D (2011) ‘Caste, Gender and the Rhetoric of Reform in India’s Drinking Water Sector’. Economic and Political Weekly, Review of Women’s Studies. Vol. 46 No. 18 pp.56-63

Joshi, D. , and B. N. Fawcett (2006 ) “Water, Hindu Mythology and An Unequal Social Order.” In The World of Water. A History of Water, edited by T. Tvedt, and T. Oestigaard , 119–136. London: I. B. Taurus

UNICEF, WaterAid and WSUP (2018). Female-friendly public and community toilets: a guide for planners and decision makers. WaterAid: London, UK. Available at

WaterAid, CBM Australia and Di Kilsby Consulting (2017) ‘Integrating gender and disability in water, sanitation and hygiene this World Water Day’ [accessed: 22/07/20]