Barbara Frost is chief executive of WaterAid. The opinions expressed are her own.
It’s hard to imagine life without a toilet. How would you feel having to go out in search of somewhere to relieve yourself, perhaps waiting till darkness to ensure privacy? Would you feel safe? Would you feel clean?
For 1 in 3 women around the world, it’s sadly not a situation that requires much imagination.
Lacking access to this basic yet vital service is not just an inconvenience; it impacts on all aspects of life, and it is women and girls who suffer the most. Across the world 1.25 billion women – daughters, sisters, mothers, grandmothers – risk shame, disease, harassment and even violence because they have nowhere safe to go to the toilet.
This World Toilet Day, WaterAid is calling on governments across the world to take action to end this crisis.
A survey we have commissioned of women living across five slums in Lagos, Nigeria, showed that one in five had first or second hand experience of verbal harassment and intimidation, or had been threatened or physically assaulted in the last year when going to the toilet.
Similar studies from countries such as Uganda, Kenya, India and the Solomon Islands show that that the scale of the problem may be much larger than this. But these are stories that do not get told, voices that do not get heard and lives that have yet to be transformed. That’s what we want to change.
The links between poor sanitation, unsafe water and illness are well established. Every day, around 2,000 mothers go through the pain of losing a child to diarrhoea brought about through a lack of access to safe toilets and clean water. In fact, diarrhoea kills more children every year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.
Lack of decent sanitation also affects women’s productivity and livelihoods, impacting on their time and health. Women and girls living in developing countries without toilet facilities spend 97 billion hours each year finding a place to go in the open. This is double the total number of hours worked every year by the entire labour force in the UK.
Women are reluctant to talk or complain about this issue, but with experiences of fear, disease, indignity and violence being commonplace wherever women lack access to safe and adequate sanitation, the world cannot ignore this.
Since 1990, around 900 million women and girls have gained access to safe sanitation, while over a billion have gained access to clean water. This is great progress, but more needs to be done.
We are therefore joining hundreds of organisations from across the world in calling for governments to keep their promises to provide the world’s poorest people with safe toilets and clean water.
Everyone can add their voice to WaterAid’s pledge, and help women living without safe sanitation, like Katherine Mulemba. She’s 60 years old and lives in an unplanned settlement in Lusaka, Zambia:
“I don’t have a latrine; I use my neighbours’. Sometimes they refuse so I go to a bar. If they see me, they don’t let me in. I feel embarrassed, but what can I do? At night, I go in a tin. I stay indoors as it’s dangerous to go out alone at night; people can rape you.”
Stories like Katherine’s are difficult to hear, but we need to make sure the world is listening.
Take action at www.wateraid.org/1in3.