SDG 6: The secret to unlocking opportunity? Clean water and toilets

By Carolynne Wheeler, WaterAid

As a 21 year old woman in rural Nigeria, Kadoon Tilenen faces a difficult choice each time she feels the urge to relieve herself.

When you’re pregnant, that urge comes even more often – and when the only toilet is a rudimentary pit latrine shared by your husband, small child and large extended family, sometimes the only option is to head for the field instead.

But doing so is uncomfortable and risks her health.

“It feels very uncomfortable but sometimes I have no choice. In my condition, my stomach hurts me sometimes when I am in the bush bending and the grasses help to cover,” she said. “At night, I am afraid so I don’t go very far from the house. There are thorns that prick and sticks that injure me. Defecating in the bush disgusts me and makes me vomit a lot, especially in my pregnant state.”

Kadoon is one of nearly 1 billion people in the world who have no choice but to relieve themselves in the open.

She understands that this contaminates the environment and spreads disease, putting her own health at risk, as well of that of her child. But there simply isn’t any choice.

Kadoon Tilenene, 21 , farmer by their community open pit toilet in Agaku. Agaku is one of the communities in Benue that lack clean water supply. Their main water source is the river and rainfall. Open defecation is widely practiced in Agaku. Photo by WaterAid/Andrew Siebo
Kadoon Tilenene, 21 , farmer by their community open pit toilet in Agaku. Agaku is one of the communities in Benue that lack clean water supply. Their main water source is the river and rainfall. Open defecation is widely practiced in Agaku. Photo by WaterAid/Andrew Siebo

“We don’t have clean water and many people don’t have toilets so we defecate in the bushes around our houses. … Dirty water is used to cook, wash, bath, for drinking and everything water is needed for. People fall sick a lot and the entire environment smells. The air is bad,” she said. “Clean water and a toilet will make people no longer fall sick. The environment will be clean and we won’t see feces in the open. It will also help us save money and not spend it on hospital bills. I think people would use latrines if they had them.”

Delivering safe water and toilets and promoting good hygiene in communities like Kadoon’s changes the life cycle of a girl. Provide this from the moment a baby comes into the world, and she’ll less likely to succumb to infection as a newborn, less likely to have chronic diarrhea and illness as a young child, more likely to attend and stay in school – even once she begins menstruating, if school has a private toilet and hand washing facilities so she can manage her periods. A better education means she’ll be more likely to marry when she’s ready and have healthier, better educated children.

A life transformed – all because of these three things those of us in the developed world take for granted.

In September, the world’s leaders got together and pledged to deliver a toilet to every household, everywhere by 2030 as part of the new Global Goals on sustainable development. These goals set out a plan to end extreme poverty, eliminate inequalities and address climate change.

All of these goals rely on delivering safe water, decent toilets and good hygiene, including hand washing with soap for all. Without these, new mothers will continue to die of preventable infections; newborns will succumb to infection acquired in surroundings that are not clean; children will continue to be stunted by malnutrition caused in part by chronic infection and entire communities will miss out on the opportunities that come when populations are healthy and productive.

The work of the Global Goals has only just begun; 663 million people in the world do not have access to clean water and another 2.4 billion do not have access to safe, private toilets. WaterAid is among the organizations calling for clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene for all. Help us make sure we keep that promise to Kadoon and her young family.

Illustrations for the SDG campaign have been made for Girls’ Globe by artist Elina Tuomi.

Breaking the Silence

Written by Amelia Savell-Boss

I have been volunteering with Friends of Irise since 2013 and it only occurred to me after a few Ameliamonths of campaigning, fundraising and educating that I was talking about issues I no longer had to deal with. I am a ‘non-menstruator’ thanks to my Progesterone Only Pill (POP) which is an oral contraceptive. I have been taking the pill for about 4 years. One of the most common side effects is it stops your period. A terrifying concept at first as my initial thoughts being, ‘where does it all go?’ ‘If I stop taking it will I have the world’s most massive period?’ I cannot claim to understand the science of it all but I must admit that I am hugely thankful that it stopped what I considered to be a painful, arduous and at times very inconvenient process.

I had my first period at a neighbour’s house, I thought I felt something funny down below and ran to the bathroom to check it out. I secretly hoped it might be my first period, as most of my friends had started and I was desperate to join the club! I pulled down my pants to find a frightening looking stain, that was not what I had anticipated. I was well educated about my body, I understood ‘the period talk’ at school, I had an older sister and a mother who had always encouraged a positive and open dialogue about our bodies. Yet, looking down at what my body had produced I was flabbergasted. I ran home, told my mum, changed my knickers, put on my first proper sanitary pad and continued playing. My first menstrual cycle was a very positive experience.

Over the next 18 months, I would occasionally get light spotting. It was not until a few weeks after my 15th birthday and during a school trip, that I experienced my first full period. I was horrified to find it lasted 8 days in a row! I did not have enough sanitary pads to deal with it, but luckily my friends were able to help me.

Every month, like clockwork I would experience a minimum of a 7 often 8 day period. I had severe cramps, back ache, fatigue and often felt like a completely different person. I tried hot water bottles, hot lavender bags, prescribed pain killers and even the combined contraceptive pill. Nothing worked. The best solution I found was the POP which stopped my periods altogether.

Through working with Irise in Uganda I have been confronted with a number of girls and women’s stories that put my old woes to shame. I took for granted when I was in pain, I had the comfort of my family, friends and teachers. I took for granted that I had a clean environment to handle my period. I took for granted the knowledge I posses about my body. I understood I was not sick nor was I abnormal. I took for granted the abundance of products available to me.

I do not want to belittle the pain many women including myself have to endure. I merely want to convey the realisation I have come to. Recently, I attended a week-long conference in Entebbe, Uganda. The only facility available was a small pit latrine.  Many schools I have seen have facilities worse than this which fail to meet basic international sanitation standards.

As a young woman, I never had to manage my period without the proper knowledge, support or sanitary products. Many young girls do not have the same luxury. Experiencing the pit latrine  gave me the smallest insight into what 40% of the global population face who have no access to basic sanitation.

I do not look forward to the day when I will start my period again. Many women agree it is not a pleasant experience. In recognition of my privilege I hope to put my experience into perspective, and use it as motivation to do and achieve more for women and girls all over the world.

Amelia has a degree in Politics and Sociology from the University of Sheffield and is currently studying a MA in International Law, Ethics and Politics at the University of Birmingham. She is a volunteer on one of Irise Internationals research projects in Uganda, and began volunteering for the Friends of Irise student groups at Sheffield. She founded Friends of Irise Birmingham where she remains as branch coordindator and has recently been appointed as National Coordinator for Friends of Irise UK, to ensure that no girl is held back by her period.

We need to talk about periods!

Every month, girls and women from around the world, regardless of race, religion, caste or creed, will experience something unique to women. Without this, human beings would not exist, because this is a sign that women are able to produce life. What is this special thing? Can you guess?

It is a period. P-E-R-I-O-D.

A period is a visual sign that a woman’s reproductive system is functioning properly, that a woman can have a baby if she wishes, and in my community, it’s a sign that a girl has transitioned from girlhood to womanhood. A period is a completely natural process. But why is it that some women and girls are ostracized in their communities every month because of this?

I asked a young woman about her menstrual health. She said,

“When I got my period, I was very young and my mother had not told me anything about it. I was so scared and I didn’t know what had happened to me. When I asked my mother, she just laughed and gave me some cloth and told me to use that. I didn’t go to school for a whole week because I was scared that if I stained myself, (the students) would laugh at me. Soon after that, I stopped going to school completely. But now, it’s much better. I can use the sanitary towels and it is much nicer than using the old cloths and rags. But I only discovered this when I came to the city. Many girls and women in the (rural) areas continue to use old rags and cloths and this can lead to infection.”

Photo Courtesy: Laura Coffman, Plan UK
Photo Courtesy: Plan UK

Access to clean and private bathrooms with running water and soap is rare in many communities. In Burkina Faso, only 17% of girls have a place in their school to change their sanitary materials. This makes it even more difficult for girls to want to go to school during their periods. UNESCO estimates that 1 in 10 African girls will miss school during menses and will eventually drop out of school.

In some areas of Nepal, girls are confined indoors each time they menstruate. In many rural villages in Eastern Nigeria girls are warned from their mothers to “stay away from boys, because if they touch you, will become pregnant.” The lack of adequate information and the ‘culture of silence’ surrounding menstruation means that girls do not have access to information about menstruation, menstrual hygiene and about their sexual and reproductive health. Only 2.5% of girls in South Asia knew that menstrual blood came from the uterus.

Menstruation is a barrier to girls’ education and can no longer be a taboo subject.

We must talk about it. Menstruation should be considered a natural and a beautiful process. We need to break the silence surrounding Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) so that girls are not subjected to discrimination or forced to stay at home and drop out of school because of a biological process.

Continue the conversation using the hashtag #MenstruationMatters

Cover Photo Credit: INDIVIDUELL MÄNNISKOHJÄLP, Flicker Creative Commons

“You Have A Rubberstamp.”

During school visits in West-Pokot, Kenya, we shared our first menses experience and asked young girls to do the same. At first nobody had the courage to stand up, but after a few minutes a young girl named Joy raised her hand and told her story:

Image c/o I-Care International
Joy speaks about her first experience with menstruation. Image c/o I-Care International

The first time I experienced my menses was in class. I felt something warm between my legs, but was not sure what it was so I didn’t bother. The teacher asked us a question and I stood up to answer it. One of the girls behind me tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “You have a rubberstamp.” I was so confused and did not know what to do. She told me to wrap a sweater around my waist – so I did. To hide my rubberstamp, I walked with a sweater around my waist for the next few days, whether at home or in public. I did not know what else to do.

My grandma, who raised me, was watching me and on the third day she asked,

“Girl why are you walking like this all the time?”

“It’s nothing granny.”

“But you can tell me. Is it what I think it is?”

So finally I told my grandmother about my menses and she taught me how to use pieces of cloths and wash them afterwards. Although better than my first menses experience, I still felt uncomfortable because at times I leaked.

Having faced all those challenges, I’m now so grateful for I-Care pads, as they look nice and feel very soft. Best of all, I don’t feel embarrassed anymore.

Join the conversation on Twitter all month long using #MenstruationMatters.

Share your ideas about menstruation in the #PeriodTalk Twitter chat on Tuesday, May 20th at 10amET.

Cover image c/o I-Care International