11.19.135:45 AM ET

Speaking Up for Girls on World Toilet Day

Women and girls suffer the most from a lack of sanitation, risking shame, disease, and sexual violence because they have nowhere safe and clean to go to the bathroom.

Today, people around the world are observing World Toilet Day—a day designated to raise awareness about the global sanitation crisis.

We know what you’re thinking—what is the sanitation crisis and why should I care?

Imagine what it would be like if there wasn’t a bathroom in your house, your office, or in the coffee shop on the corner. Think about how that would affect not only your time but also your health, hygiene, and community environment.

According to a recent study by The Water Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this is the reality for more than 4.1 billion people worldwide. And while men face the burden of poor sanitation, women and girls are the real victims facing additional challenges like shame, disease, harassment and even violence because they have nowhere safe or clean, to go to the bathroom.

For these women, a lack of sanitation means having to wait—sometime for hours—to find the right time to go to the bathroom. It means venturing out at night to remote spots so no one will see you when you go, risking being assaulted in the process. It means not being able to concentrate in school and when puberty hits this angst increases as you try to manage your period without a toilet and instead choose not to go to school on those days of the month.

These challenges are prevalent across the developing world. Consider this:

1.25 billion, or 1 in 3, women and girls are without access to adequate sanitation

Diarrhea, caused by a lack of access to clean water and safe toilets, kills more children every year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

Women and girls collectively spend an estimated 97 billion hours each year looking for a place to “go.”

With staggering statistics like these, we know that the lack of access is more than an inconvenience; it impacts all aspects of a woman’s life including her work and education. Increasing access to sanitation in the developing world is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. It gets girls in schools, improves health, and allows women to get jobs—contributing to economic growth within communities. According to the World Health Organisation, every $1 invested in water infrastructure produces an average of $4 in increased productivity.

Despite this, the sanitation crisis has not taken top priority on the global agenda. In fact, it is perhaps one of the most off-track targets for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). With just over one year until 2015 —the deadline for the MDGs—it is clear there is significant work to be done.

So what is the solution?

While it may seem easiest to just throw money at the problem and build more toilets, we know this doesn’t work. The developing world is riddled with broken infrastructure—water pumps and toilets. And this is about more than toilets that function. It’s about dignity, particularly among women and girls.

We must invest in innovative solutions that bring lasting sanitation to everyone, even the most vulnerable. Allowing women and girls the opportunity to be part of the solution can help to achieve greater impact. And we’re already seeing this happen in many communities.

Take India for example; a country where an estimated 700 million people don’t have access to acceptable and safe sanitation. Like most places, women and girls are the most affected. In fact, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council estimates that at least 23 percent of girls in India drop out of school when they start menstruating and those that don’t miss an average of five days of school each month. Other data shows that 25 percent of women in India report violent sexual assault while going to the bathroom in the open.

Water For People, the nonprofit organization where we work, puts girls at the center of solving their own sanitation problems, empowering them with the opportunity to actively lead the design of sanitation facilities in their schools. In our school programs in India, new structures include girl-friendly features such as separate hand-washing and sanitation facilities out of view of the school. Girls have also ensured that wider bathroom stalls with mirrors are available so they can check their saris for stains when menstruating. This means that girls are more comfortable using the bathroom while in school.

This kind of innovation and unexpected partnership, which empowers women and girls, is what we need at all levels to address the sanitation crisis. We’re intervening in people’s lives and we must take that seriously.

This World Toilet Day, let’s speak up for women and girls around the world. It’s time we focus not on the number of toilets we can build but on the number of lives we can change with lasting sanitation solutions.


Emma Pfister is the Manager of Social Media and Partnerships at Water For People.

Katja Neubauer is the Program Officer for Africa and India at Water For People.