November 19 is World Toilet Day
Isha Sesay: Issue of inadequate sanitation takes on another dimension when it comes to women and girls
To many of us, it is such a simple act – going to the bathroom. If you want to go, you go. It really doesn’t require a whole lot of thought.
But the fact is, we’re the lucky ones. According to the World Health Organization (based on 2010 numbers), some 2.5 billion people lack access to decent sanitation – more than 30% of the global population. More than a billion people are forced to defecate in the open. The majority of them are living in extreme poverty across parts of rural Asia and Africa, each and every one of them denied their fundamental human right of access to clean water and sanitation.
I get that this is one of those subjects no one really wants to talk about. It makes most people too uncomfortable.
But we have to understand what our silence means – an increased risk of illness and malnutrition, which all too often leads to death, especially in children. According to the United Nations, a child dies every 20 seconds because of poor sanitation. They are dying from diseases linked to inadequate facilities, unhygienic living conditions and a lack of clean water supplies.
It is with all this in mind that this Thursday, World Toilet Day, the spotlight is being pointed at the link between sanitation and nutrition, in an attempt to raise awareness of the importance of toilets in supporting better nutrition and health.
However, the issue of inadequate sanitation takes on another dimension when it comes to women and girls. They are among the ones who suffer the most, and yet their plight is too readily overlooked as part of the water and sanitation crisis.
The sad reality is in some countries, women and girls without access to toilets are forced to wait for the cover of darkness to ensure some level of privacy before they can relieve themselves. This not only poses a risk to their personal health, as it increases the risk of bladder infections and other health issues, but it also puts them in danger of being assaulted or raped.
And this same issue of lack of privacy is impacting the future livelihoods of millions of schoolgirls. Most schools in developing countries are without bathrooms. Faced with the discomfort and embarrassment that comes with that state of affairs, many girls decide to stay home from school. And once puberty and menstruation arrive, they often decide to drop out of school altogether.
UNICEF estimates that one in 10 school-age African girls either skips school during menstruation or drops out entirely because of lack of sanitation. With their educations cut short, the chance of these girls breaking the cycle of poverty they were born into is all but eliminated.
As the founder of the not-for-profit organization W.E. Can Lead, which aims to educate and empower Africa’s teenage girls, I feel compelled to lend my voice to efforts to right this wrong. Think about it this way – millions of girls are unable to fulfill their potential simply because they don’t have access to toilets and running water!
So, as uncomfortable as you may be discussing the bathroom habits of tens of millions people, now is not the time to change the subject. Rather, keep in the front of your mind the fact that people are falling ill, children dying, and the physical safety and livelihoods of women and girls are hanging in the balance.
On this World Toilet Day, speak up and demand that more is done. #Wecantwait.