Do women really risk arrest advocating for toilets? The answer is an unfortunate yes. But when one considers that the invention that has saved more lives than any other — the toilet— is fundamental to women’s health and security, and remains dangerously absent for tens of millions of women, arrest is a risk women are willing to take.
When well-known female activists were so disgusted by the lack of public toilets for women in China, they knew they risked arrest when they created a campaign called “Occupy Men’s Room” in 2012. Having been previously jailed for gender rights protests, this time their protest led to four cities pledging to increase the ratio of toilets for women. That same year, women in India stormed men’s public toilets on International Women’s Day to protest the lack of pubic toilets for women. Last year in Amsterdam, when police fined a woman for relieving herself in public because no public toilet was available, protests were planned across Amsterdam. The city had 35 public urinals for men but just three public toilets for women.
According to a recent paper by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the International Rescue Committee, “One of the most pervasive and common forms of gender discrimination experienced daily by girls and women around the world is their inadequate access to private toilets.”
The lack of toilets also places women at grave daily risk. Many become victims of sexual assault, rape and even murder during nighttime trips into a field or forest for privacy. They traverse monsoons, poisonous snakes and angry farmers. And that long wait until dark can damage kidneys and other organs, and many women suffer chronic urinary tract infections.
The situation doesn’t improve for girls inside schools. According to UNICEF, nearly two-thirds of schools in developing countries lack adequate sanitation. One of the best ways to lead a girl to an impoverished adulthood is to deny her toilet. Many girls will drop out of school once they hit puberty, because the lack of separate and adequate toilet facilities makes it impossible for them to take care of their hygiene needs. The lack of toilets increases everything from poverty and poor health to susceptibility to trafficking. Undereducated girls also tend to go on to have many children, too closely spaced, increasing infant mortality, and these mothers are more likely to die during childbirth.
But perhaps most horrifying and absurd is the absence of toilets in healthcare facilities and hospitals. Thirty-three percent of facilities in low- and middle- income countries have no toilets, according to a landmark study out this year that drew on data from 179,000 healthcare facilities. Add in the pervasive lack of clean water and soap, and it’s easy to imagine the tragic impact on vulnerable newborns and mothers when they must deliver in what amount to health centers of potential infection.
Women advocating for toilets is not new. The First 100 Years is a U.K.-based campaign to celebrate the history of women in law since 1919. “As we collected stories of women in the legal profession, one story came up repeatedly — and it stood out,” said founder Dana Denis-Smith, who uncovered a surprising common thread, “The lack of sanitary facilities for women as a reason to reject them when applying for jobs in law firms.” The lack of toilets offered many businesses an excuse to not hire women, and tied women to their homes and nearby surroundings through the 19th and 20th centuries.
As former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan rightly stated, “No other issue suffers such disparity between its human importance and its political priority.” From public spaces to private workplaces, homes, healthcare centers and schools, toilets remain a fundamental issue for millions of women and girls who live with fear, humiliation, violence, disease and death — all for the lack of a toilet.
The Columbia University report concludes: “Female friendly toilets would go very far in helping to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals around health, education, sanitation, economic empowerment and gender” and recommends writing female friendly toilets “into existing guidelines developed by key water, sanitation and hygiene actors, governments, international agencies — like UNICEF — and non-governmental organizations.”
World Toilet Day needs to remind us that women around the world suffer for lack of a toilet. From U.S. government foreign assistance funding and influence to nongovernmental organizations engaged in health, development and humanitarian aid, all must include toilets in their work so that dignity and safety become the daily reality for every woman and girl. Because yes, toilets really are that important.
Susan Barnett, a former Emmy-nominated network news investigative producer, is founder of Faiths for Safe Water, a nonprofit group seeking to unite the faith voice around the shared symbol of water. She also leads communications for Global Water 2020, which seeks to accelerate progress toward solvable challenges of global water security.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.