World Toilet Day: Sanitation for Gender Equity

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Hello. It is World Toilet Day today! I have made it a point to regularly blog about it every year since I started blogging:

Have A Shitty Day: World Toilet Day

World Toilet Day: Give A Shit

In each of these posts I have talked about the importance of sanitation in health and the prevention of infectious diseases, but this time, I shall shift my focus of discussion elsewhere. The past year has been marked with a lot of introspection as one story after another emerged about ghastly gender violence and rapes and other incidents of violence against women and girls. From spontaneous movements by the civil society to major upheaval at the policy-makers’ level to bring about a “rape law” with more teeth, the past year has brought rape and gender violence to the front page. I am not saying that the incidence has suddenly increased, but definitely more cases are coming to light and that is a great thing; as more cases are uncovered, more perpetrators are likely to be caught and punished.

So, this year, I shall be focussing on the issue of Gender Equity and Gender Violence with respect to “World Toilet Day”.

While these two topics seem unrelated on the surface of the matter, a slight probing would reveal more than a strong connection. Women require more privacy not just to execute their bodily functions, but also during menstruation. This double whammy means that most women wait till after nightfall to go to the open for defecation. And when they do, they are at greater risk for a lot of dangerous outcomes. This is not what I am saying, do not take my word for it. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations (Human Rights), in a post on their website, states:

She said that one study found that women and girls are more susceptible to snake bites because they tend to move quietly in the bush in order to be discrete.  Snakes and other animals are then not scared away and are more likely to be surprised by the women’s presence and bite them. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to walk loudly into the bush scaring snakes and other animals away.
Women and girls don’t need toilets and bathrooms just for defecation. They also have a much greater need for privacy and dignity when menstruating.
“Women and girls have particular sanitation needs when they are menstruating which are rarely discussed and considered,” said the expert. “Menstruation remains a taboo in many cultures,” she explained “and, as a result, the ability to engage in a wide variety of activities – school, work, movement in general – while women and girls are menstruating is restricted when they lack access to an appropriate sanitation facility.”

Access to toilets, thus, is a major concern in gender equity.

Also, if we consider the fact that the issue of education as a tool of empowerment is critical to restore gender equity and reverse gender discrimination against the girl child, then, again, we can cite poor sanitation as a barrier. Given their specific needs once a girl hits menarche, it becomes imperative that the schools they attend to have accessible toilets that can not only cater to their physiological and psychological health, but also becomes a tool to enable them to attend school beyond menarche. And without education, complete empowerment is an unrealisable myth. Hence, the concept of toilets is, in a large way, associated with better health outcomes and achievement of millennium developments. This is not a very large stretch, since, we all know, that in the India society, at least today, the influence of the MOTHER on the family is undeniable. Hence, to have an empowered family, we need an empowered mother, who can take the responsibility of fighting her own battles on her own wits and strength.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has been quoted to say:

A 16-year-old girl in Kampala, Uganda told LSHTM researchers: “I use a public lavatory, which is 100m from my house. It is not safe to go there at night, it is dangerous here. I have to go to the toilet at home and throw it outside.”

It is just a matter of misfortune that you end up with such a lose/lose scenario!

This exact matter was mentioned by Dr. Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate economist and professor, in his speech at the Indian Public Health Association annual conference (2012, Kolkata), where he stated that one of the reasons why Bangladesh could grow in leaps and bounds from the viewpoint of the various indices is because of its dedicated program, to establish and maintain almost universal coverage of chemoprophylaxis for the man on the street! This seems like an easy way of implementation. But, as they say, easier said than done.

In this setting, we need good sanitation services, not just for the delivery of physical well being and prevention of GI route spread viruses and other pathogens, but also to maintain an equal society where the women do not have to worry about conducting boldly functions under the cover of nocturnal darkness.

Enough talking. Time to join in. Happy World Toilet Day, peeps!

Skeptic Oslerphile, Scientist at the Indian Council of Medical Research, National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases. Interests include: Emerging Infections, Public Health, Antimicrobial Resistance, One Health and Zoonoses, Diarrheal Diseases, Medical Education, Medical History, Open Access, Healthcare Social Media and Health2.0. Opinions are my own!

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