World Toilet Day, on 19 November, is always an opportunity to recall how important access to toilets is for development. But it is all too seldom said that it is even more crucial for women and for equality.
Women in danger without access to toilets
What do we know about the number of rapes which take place every day and every night on the way to public toilets in the slums of Nairobi, Kinshasa or Delhi? Studies conducted in over thirty countries, including India, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya, show that for a woman, not having access to a toilet at home means being exposed to high risks of harassment, rape and sexual violence, not to mention health risks. This is, of course, something people may be tempted to laugh at, or this subject could be left to the general indifference as usual. But there is no getting away with the facts. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 4.5 billion people, i.e. 60% of humanity, do not have a safely managed sanitation service. This means private toilets not shared with another family and connected to an excreta treatment system.
Since 2010, access to drinking water and sanitation has been a human right recognized by the United Nations. Since 2015, it has also been one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030, a goal which specifically mentions the special attention that must be given to women and girls in addressing this issue. Indeed, we often forget that access to toilets is a crucial issue for their health and dignity.
Provide access to toilets and resolve the threefold problem of health, schooling and safety
Pending the achievement of the SDGs, some 900 million people are forced to defecate in the open or in the street, which has dramatic consequences in terms of schooling and public health. There is an obvious correlation between the absence of toilets, which causes diarrheal diseases, and child mortality: in Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world, 68% of the population does not have access to any toilet and 1 child in 7 dies before the age of five according to UNICEF. Some 40% of health facilities in poor countries do not have drinking water, toilets or hygiene systems, points out WHO. The equipment rate is even lower for primary health centers where a number of women give birth. A large share of infant and maternal mortality is due to the lack of hygiene and sanitation in health facilities.
The absence of separate toilets for girls and boys at school, ensuring privacy and equipped with a water point which is essential for menstrual hygiene, is a cause of absenteeism among girls, or even gradual dropouts. This fuels the spiral of poverty. According to UNICEF, only two-thirds of schools in the world have toilets (whether separated by gender or not). In Tanzania and Bangladesh, there is an annual increase of 10% in the enrolment of girls following the construction of separate toilets.
Without access to toilets at home, women of all ages have to wait for nightfall to relieve themselves in the open or go to public toilets. In semi-darkness, they are exposed to physical attacks and sexual violence. In addition, not being able to go to the toilet endangers health and can cause serious infections.
Access to toilets essential for equality
Access to toilets and a sanitation service is an essential factor for gender equality. The challenge lies in doing more to provide widespread access with special attention for women.
In Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa located in Nairobi (Kenya), Agence Française de Développement (AFD) is financing 50 public sanitary facilities with support from a Kenyan NGO. This is improving living conditions for 15,000 people. Prior to their installation, 40% of residents living nearby did not have access to decent toilets and 20% used flying toilets, meaning they defecated in plastic bags. The journey between home and toilets has been significantly reduced and there is lighting around and inside the building during opening hours, which contributes to the safety of women. AFD is also financing the construction of latrines in 26 schools in the outlying districts of N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, in addition to about a thousand toilets in households, with priority given to women heads of households.
Despite all these facts, access to toilets, to this basic service, is not yet a priority in public policies. India, which has the highest number of people defecating in the open air in the world, is in this respect an exceptional case. In 2014, the country launched an unprecedented and unparalleled program in the world to date: the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Program) provides for nothing less than equipping every household with toilets by 2019, with an investment of USD 25bn. An example to be followed.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.