Women and Water: World Toilet Day

Friday, November 19th was World Toilet Day.  While this may not have the ring to it that World Water Day or World AIDS Day has, like those days it brings attention to a pressing problem: the lack of adequate sanitation through much of the world.

Approximately 2.6 billion people in the world do not have access to basic sanitation.  The problem of lack of santitation compounds the problem of clean water access – without sanitation measures, people defecate in the open which eventually will wash into streams and rivers.  Drinking that water without treating it first can be extremely hazardous to one’s health, creating problems like widespread, chronic diarrhea and other water bourne illnesses.  Lack of sanitation has caused more deaths than all the wars of the 20th century combined.

World Toilet Day is a day of awareness to bring attention to this issue.  While the problem may seem to be solvable by just placing toilets in strategic areas, dirty toilets are just as much a part of the problem as no toilets.  The problem with lack of sanitation is a health problem, first and foremost, and dirty toilets can cause just as much risk to health as no toilets.

Lack of sanitation also complicates the issues of women’s security.  ‘Taking care of business’ in the open can leave a woman vulnerable to attack.  Additionally, she must do so in the early morning or late at night in order to protect her privacy because being seen going to the bathroom is associated with shame in many cultures.  Again this leaves her vulnerable to sexual assault.

Without adequate sanitation methods, young girls leave their education earlier because there is nowhere for them to urinate at school in private: the only option is to do so in front of peers, again making the girls vulnerable to sexual and physical assault.  Added to this is the problem of managing menstruation without adequate sanitation.  Without clean sanitation facilities, girls drop out during puberty.

In the Western world, we do not think about what impact not having toilets would be.  It is another bit of basic survival that is provided for us – we become disconnected to how important sanitation is because we don’t have to worry about finding a safe place to relieve ourselves.

If you are like me, you probably missed that last Friday was even a day of awareness.  It does not get the attention it deserves because in the Western world, we do not talk of such things.  They are taboo.  It seems like sanitation is only allowed to come up in the toilet humor of popular comedies, which are aimed at the male population.  Because women are especially not allowed to talk about such issues; it is ‘unseemingly’ or ‘unladylike.’ Feminist blogger RMJ tackles some of this in her blog ‘Deeply Problematic.’ Sanitation is another thing that women are supposed to keep private.  But keeping quiet can cause more problems than speaking up about the lack of sanitation in the world.

Women need to start speaking up about this.  The problem of sanitation does not go away just because we missed the awareness day – it is a continual problem that is not getting the attention it deserves.  Africa World Water Week is this week (Nov 22-26).  The goal of this week is to bring attention to water and sanitation issues in Africa, and the Millennium Development Goal to half the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation.  This goal is still far from being met, but getting people to talk about this issue is a big step forward.  So this week, when listing what you are thankful for, be thankful that you have access to adequate sanitation and get that conversation started.

(Photo Credit: United Nations)