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Earlier this year, a 13-year-old girl left her parents’ home in Kanpur, India in the late hours of the night and never returned. The next day, her body was found naked, with broken limbs. She had been raped and murdered. The girl hadn’t left home on a late night adventure, to meet up with friends or go to a party. She had left because there was no toilet at home, and her only option for relief was to go outside.
This incident, while truly horrifying, is far from isolated. In the Indian state of Bihar, for example, where almost 70 percent of rural households have no access to a toilet, most cases of rape of women and girls happen when they are forced to defecate out in the open. There is a lot of work to be done to get at the root causes of endemic violence against women, but in the meantime there are concrete things we can do now to help, like address the global sanitation crisis.
I know that I can always find a clean and private toilet when I need one. That is not the case for a staggering 2.5 billion people. And it leads to suffering that the rest of us have the luxury of never having to consider.
Violence is just one of many problems associated with the lack of sanitation. Each year, food and water tainted with fecal matter give billions of children diarrhea. About 700,000 of those children die. And because diarrhea makes it harder to absorb nutrients and vaccines, the survivors are less likely to thrive.
Sanitation isn’t just a problem in rural places like Bihar. It’s especially severe in the growing urban centers of poor countries, where slums with almost no infrastructure are getting more crowded every day. Privacy is almost impossible to find. Even where community latrines exist, they are often expensive to use and, to put it mildly, poorly maintained. In one slum in Delhi, four children drowned in an uncovered sewer.
At the Gates Foundation, I spend a lot of time learning about the problems facing the world’s poorest people—especially women and children. Our work is driven by the principle that every life has equal value, and every person should have the same opportunity to live a healthy, productive life. And to live with dignity. We invest in sanitation issues because having access to a toilet is a prerequisite for health and dignity.
There are a lot of reasons many people in developing countries don’t have better access to toilets. Part of the problem is technological. The state of the art in sanitation technology is just plain lousy. The flush toilets and sewers we use in developed countries are expensive, difficult to repair, and environmentally wasteful. In fact, flush toilets work just well enough in rich countries to prevent people from developing a new-and-improved toilet that works better for everyone.
And so we’re working with dozens of innovators from as many countries who are trying to make the first significant improvements to the technology in over a century. Last month, the Gates Foundation co-hosted the Reinvent the Toilet Fair, with the government of India. The goal: inventing a next-generation toilet that will also meet the needs of the poor.
The fair was like any other science fair. The displays were fascinating. Some of the prototypes stretched my conception of what, precisely, a toilet is. Could a toilet that uses no water turn waste into energy? Could a machine convert tons of sewage into a small amount of fertilizer?
But the fair wasn’t just an idle exercise in futurism. It was a practical response to the needs of the poor, especially poor women. In the not-too-distant future, the prototypes will have become real products that provide safety, better health, and greater dignity to billions who lack sanitation today.
Melinda Gates is co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.