You might laugh to hear that it’s World Toilet Day this weekend (19 November). Of all the things to have their own day, the toilet is not the most glamorous.
But the humble porcelain bowl which so many of us take for granted is essential to our rights as women.
Being able to shut ourselves away, lock the door, flush, wash and forget – when nature calls, and during menstruation – is a fundamental part of our right to be healthy and secure in the places we live, work and study.
WaterAid’s Out of Order: State of the World’s Toilets demonstrates that for 1.1 billion women and girls around the world, decent household toilets are still out of reach.
This is more than an inconvenience: it means women and girls are still having to search out private scrubland or a dark corner to relieve themselves, making them more vulnerable to harassment and attack. It means having to brave filthy makeshift toilets which spread infection. It means doing your business into a plastic bag because you are too scared to leave the house at night – and it means leaving your community littered with such bags in the morning because there’s nowhere to dispose of them properly.
This, in turn, means you can’t work or care for your family when you become ill. It means you have to spend more time nursing children with diarrhoea – and illnesses become a strain on entire healthcare systems – draining a country’s economic prospects.
The impact on women in particular is painfully clear in the places in which WaterAid works. In Nigeria, for instance, women who have fled violence in Borno state frequently find themselves sheltering in makeshift camps without sanitation provision.
“We go to the toilet in the bush. There are many germs there, and it is risky as there are snakes, and I have also experienced some attacks from boys,” said Rahab, 20, who escaped from Borno only to encounter new dangers in a displaced persons camp in Abuja. “It is not safe early in the morning or in the night as you can meet anyone. They drink alcohol and will touch you and if you don’t like it, they will force you. If I see men when I go to the toilet, I go back home and hold it in.”
And in Tanzania, student Naima, 14, missed classes nearly every month once she began menstruating because her school had no decent toilets or washing facilities where she could care for herself, so she found herself dashing home each time she needed to change her sanitary towels instead. “Previously, I would go home to change when on my period, and I missed many classes, meaning I fell behind with my studies. The toilets were very dirty so it was easy for diseases to spread. Many students used to get diarrhoea and there were also cases of cholera,” she told a WaterAid researcher.
This should make us angry, because it’s all preventable. If countries like the United States and the United Kingdom could deliver safe sanitation systems for entire cities in just a few years – as happened in London in the 1850s when the government was forced to act after being nearly driven out of the imposing new Parliament by the stench of raw sewage floating in the River Thames below its windows – then it’s possible everywhere. But it takes political leaders to step up and decide to make sanitation a priority, and to dedicate the funding to match.
When they do, girls’ and women’s rights are transformed. Naima, the student in Tanzania, says she no longer falls ill with stomachache now that she has access to clean water and a safe, private toilet at school, and is now passing her exams because she isn’t missing her lessons.
In Bangladesh, student Ishrat, 13, can now ask her teacher for a sanitary pad and use safe, clean toilets at school instead of rushing home – or instead of simply staying home and missing lessons due to the fear of the humiliation of leaks.
So this Sunday, 19 November, when you find nature calling, pause and take a moment to be grateful for your toilet, and maybe take a moment more to help those who are without this path to better health, education and security, by writing to your local government representative or by donating. Women and girls everywhere will not realise their rights while they are still suffering this injustice.