Ensuring women’s access to safe toilets is ‘moral’ imperative, says Ban marking World Day

Public toilet in the shanty town of Ciudad Pachacutec, Ventanilla District, El Callao Province, Peru.
World Bank/Monica Tijero
Public toilet in the shanty town of Ciudad Pachacutec, Ventanilla District, El Callao Province, Peru.

Ensuring women’s access to safe toilets is ‘moral’ imperative, says Ban marking World Day

With one out of three women worldwide lacking access to safe toilets, it is a moral imperative to end open defecation to ensure women and girls are not at risk of assault and rape simply because they lack a sanitation facility, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged today on World Toilet Day.

In his message for the Day, commemorated annually on 19 November – with this year’s theme Equality, Dignity and the Link Between Gender-Based Violence and Sanitation – Mr. Ban said that addressing the sanitation challenge requires a global partnership and called on Member States to “spare no effort to bring equality, dignity and safety” to women and girls around the world.

“A staggering 1.25 billion women and girls would enjoy greater health and increased safety with improved sanitation. Evidence also shows safe and clean toilets encourage girls to stay in school,” the UN chief said.

In all, some 2.5 billion people worldwide do not have adequate toilets and among them 1 billion defecate in the open – in fields, bushes, or bodies of water – putting them, and especially children, in danger of deadly faecal-oral diseases like diarrhoea.

In 2013, more than 340,000 children under five died from diarrhoeal diseases due to a lack of safe water, sanitation and basic hygiene – an average of almost 1,000 deaths per day.

But women who do not have access to adequate toilets are especially at risk, since they are vulnerable to shame and potential violence when they seek a place to defecate.

Ensuring that women have access to proper sanitation and toilets is especially crucial as countries work to formulate a sustainable development agenda for the period beyond the year 2015, Mr. Ban urged.

“Communities must be supported as they strive to become open defecation-free. Advocacy efforts must step up and taboos must be broken,” the Secretary-General added.

These are the objectives of the UN Call to Action on Sanitation to mobilize global, national and community efforts to improve hygiene, change social norms and eliminate open defecation by 2025.

In its remarks on the Day, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that slow progress on sanitation and the entrenched practice of open defecation among millions around the world continue to put children and their communities at risk.

“Lack of sanitation is a reliable marker of how the poorest in a country are faring,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, head of UNICEF’s global water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes.

“But although it is the poor who overwhelmingly do not have toilets, everyone suffers from the contaminating effects of open defecation, so everyone should have a sense of urgency about addressing this problem,” he added.

The call to end the practice of open defecation is being made with growing insistence as the links with childhood stunting become clearer. India, with 597 million (half the population) practising open defecation, also has high levels of stunting.

“The challenge of open defecation is one of both equity and dignity, and very often of safety as well, particularly for women and girls,” Wijesekera noted. “They have to wait until dark to relieve themselves, putting them in danger of attack, and worse, as we have seen recently.”

In May, the hanging of two teenage girls in Uttar Pradesh who had gone out after dark to defecate caused international shock and dismay, and highlighted the security issues involved in open defecation.

UNICEF’s Community Approaches to Total Sanitation addresses the problem at the local level by involving communities in devising solutions, and has led to some 26 million people across more than 50 countries abandoning the practice of open defecation since 2008.

Eighty-two per cent of the 1 billion people practising open defecation live in just 10 countries: India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Niger, Nepal, China, and Mozambique. The numbers of people practising open defecation are still rising in 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, though they have declined in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. In Nigeria, numbers of open defecators increased from 23 million in 1990 to 39 million in 2012.

Globally, some 1.9 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation since 1990. However, progress has not kept up with population growth and the Millennium Development Goal target on sanitation is unlikely to be reached by 2015 at current rates of progress.

The inter-governmental Open Working Group on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals have recommended that the new goals include a target of achieving adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and ending open defecation by 2030.

Several events were organized at Headquarters to mark the Day, including a press conference with Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who has spearheaded efforts around the initiative, including towards ending open defecation.

Mr. Eliasson said there are so many reasons to get involved in this issue. Firstly, sanitation is the most lagging goal of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The issue of sanitation has wide implications as it touches on economic development, waste management and the ever-increasing scarce water resource. Managing sanitation makes good economic sense, he said, adding that one dollar investment in sanitation equals to four dollars in economic growth.

“And then basically, it’s a matter of human rights…and to me it is also a matter of dignity,” Mr. Eliasson said. This year’s focus on women and sanitation is especially important. In some 20 countries, there are horrible examples of girls that go out in the field get attacked, rapped and even hanged.

“This has been a bit of a personal commitment, I actually saw children die in front of me in Somalia in 1992 of dehydration and diarrhoea,” he said.

Many times in schools there is only one hole in the back and that is reserved for boys. Girls are too ashamed to go and so it becomes impossible for them to go to school. Investing in water and sanitation has horizontal benefits.

Singapore’s Representative to the United Nations, Karen Tan, who has also led efforts on the initiative, said that people don’t like to talk about toilets.

“Pooing” and “peeing,” she said, are extremely taboo, but hopefully, even if people laugh and snicker, Governments will make steps to take action and raise awareness about this very serious issue.

There are many critical aspects to this Day, including education, equality, dignity, and human rights. Particularly, it is important to pay special attention to the challenges that women and girls face when they do not have access to toilets and proper sanitation.

Chair of UN-Water, Mr. Michel Jarraud said “we need to talk about open defecation – no matter how taboo it may feel.”

Ending open defecation is a crucial way to speed up development. “We have to work in every possible way to address the vulnerabilities and challenges faced by women who lack access to toilets and sanitation. In a number of countries, there is evidence that girls do not go to school if there are no toilets,” he said, echoing Mr. Eliasson.

“We need to close the gap between the ones who have and the ones who do not have,” he said, urging the need to put water and sanitation at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda.

World Toilet Day was established by the “Sanitation for All” resolution, adopted by the UN General Assembly in July 2013, designating 19 November as World Toilet Day. The Day is coordinated by UN-Water in collaboration with Governments and relevant stakeholders.