Living with fragile infrastructure: The gendered labour of preventing, responding to and being impacted by sanitation failures

Cecilia Alda-Vidal*, Mary Lawhon, Deljana Iossifova, Alison L. Browne

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

While infrastructure is often understood to operate ‘in the background’, scholars have increasingly attended to the labour that enables urban material flows. Drawing on empirical material collected through fieldwork and document analysis in Lilongwe, this paper explores how different residents of the city experience and respond to the regular failures of infrastructure. We examine sanitation in one middle- and two low-income areas, considering the contamination of drinking water and the collapse of latrines. Attending to the gendered, embodied, affective, and intimate dimensions of maintenance and repair labours, we develop three interrelated arguments. First, we frame incidents of failure not as individual accidents but as part of persistently fragile infrastructures. Second, we contribute to extending the gaze of infrastructural labours beyond manual work and ‘expert’ knowledge to consider a range of unpaid practices and their role in preventing, responding to, and being impacted by failure. Finally, we show that both the labour and impacts of infrastructural failure disproportionally fall on (low-income) women. Emphasising the ongoing, gendered struggles of keeping sanitation infrastructures functional helps us to see the limits of scholarship that centres clearly identifiable jobs associated with infrastructure's construction, maintenance and repair. We conclude with reflections on the implications of these arguments for our understanding of the knowledges and labours that keep infrastructures working, and the conditions in which these are performed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103724
Early online date28 Mar 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2023

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Everyday practices
  • Gender
  • Infrastructure
  • Maintenance and repair
  • Sanitation


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