Investing in infrastructure is widely recognized as a cornerstone of socio-economic development and is attracting increasing attention in the post-COVID era. With no country in the world spared from the economic impacts of the pandemic, infrastructure has been pitched as a key part of stimulus and recovery packages. But headline excitement garnered by figures such as the recent $1 trillion plan signed into law by Joe Biden and calls to “build back better” belie equally important challenges to ensure that new investments are truly inclusive, and in particular, gender sensitive.

Realizing the transformative potential of inclusive and sustainable infrastructure, however, requires a shift in business-as-usual. It requires the participation and consideration of social groups in all their diversity and how they may differentially engage with and use infrastructure. This is something that has often been taken for granted especially with regard to women.

Firstly, taking a gender lens to infrastructure has historically been reduced to ticking boxes e.g., “have codes of conduct and training been drawn up to mitigate gender-based violence and harassment on construction sites?”; “if resettlement is required as a result of an infrastructure project, are women offered equal compensation?” Whilst these checkboxes uphold the principle of “doing no harm”, they overlook seeing women as individual agents with distinct needs, preferences and desires with regard to how they use infrastructure.

Secondly, it is often assumed that women will automatically benefit from infrastructure in much the same way as men if not more so. This is not least because of prevalent gender gaps that can be found in mobility, access to clean water and access to energy to name a few impact areas that infrastructure purports to address. Yet suggesting that women’s access to jobs will be improved with the construction of a road that addresses mobility barriers can be misleading. Mobility is gendered with women typically travelling less often and on shorter journeys than men, and tending to use public transport more. What if the construction of the road isn’t accompanied with a corresponding improvement in public transport that recognizes the distinct safety concerns of women? How can we be sure that this road meets women’s transport needs?

Going beyond “do no harm” and ensuring greater gender intentionality in infrastructure projects can take a number of forms:

  • Gender sensitive design features. These are design features that are informed by the distinct needs and ways in which women use the services provided by a given infrastructure project. For example, a social housing project can respond to women’s safety concerns by locating waste collection bins in public, well-lit areas and locating communal play areas such that care givers have easy oversight of children from housing units. Whilst caregiving is not innately a woman’s job, it remains the case that women make up the majority of care givers around the world taking on 2x as much in developed economies and up to 10x as much in countries like India.
  • Implementing measures to support women’s uptake of services. Such measures mean that even projects that do not explicit integrate gender-sensitive design features can drive real impact for women. For example, measures such as the promotion of employment of female staff and greater awareness raising of sexual harassment prevention, in addition to the introduction of female-only cars in the Delhi metro have helped to address women’s safety concerns. Supporting women’s access to access to safe public transport in this way has in turn revealed a measurable impact on their economic participation.
  • Identifying climate action complementarities. With some estimates suggesting that the infrastructure sector contributes to 60% of global emissions, there are a myriad of opportunities to tackle gender equity and climate action together, from clean energy transitions to the promotion of public transport. For example, given that women in developing countries can spend roughly hour and a half every day on collecting fuelwood, infrastructure investments such as solar energy programs that leverage local self-help groups to reach female-headed households can address both promote the use of renewable energy and reduce women’s daily time burdens. Meanwhile, solar energy can equally be used to power public bus stops that provide appropriate shade and lighting for the safe mobility of women and girls on bus services such as Sakura Bus in Pakistan.

In the midst of renewed commitments to close infrastructure financing gaps and use infrastructure as a pillar of COVID-recoveries, we must not lose sight of those who infrastructure investments are ultimately seeking to impact. Whilst achieving quality infrastructure can seem like a daunting task, there are a number of practical ways in which investors, governments and development actors can begin institutionalizing a more intentional approach to ensuring infrastructure’s positive impacts are truly inclusive and sustainable.

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