What’s in a toilet? World Toilet Day 2019


The Fund Coordinator GSI Specialist, Jose Mott reflects on what makes a toilet ‘adequate’ and ‘equitable’ for all this World Toilet Day. 

Most of us in Australia do not give a second thought to having access to a toilet. I say ‘most’, because still for some, such as the homeless, people with disabilities, people of diverse genders, and people from remote communities, access to a hygienic, safe and accessible toilet in public spaces and institutions, is not necessarily a given.

Yet, across the world, one in three people do not have access to a decent toilet of their own (WaterAID global). And those who do not have access are more likely to be the poorest and most marginalised in their communities. This is one of the many reasons why the UN Member States pledged to ensure “no one will be left behind” and to “endeavour to reach the furthest behind first” in the adoption of the 2030 Sustainability Development Goals agenda. It is also why Water for Women Fund partners, through their WASH programs across the Indo-Pacific, and the WASH sector more broadly, recognise that leaving no one behind is critical to achieving access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all (SDG target 6.2).

This is what today is all about. But what makes a toilet ‘adequate’ and ‘equitable’ for all? If we consider public toilet facilities, such as in schools, this can make all the difference about who can attend school. To highlight a few examples of exclusion that the WASH sector is addressing.

Female students need sanitation facilities that allow them to practise dignified menstruation, ie. toilets that are safe, private, clean and allow for the safe disposal of used sanitary materials. Yet the absence of these factors are not the only barriers. Entrenched social barriers of taboo and stigma relating to menstruation can lead to higher non-attendance rates of girls at school. Is the answer to have a separate menstrual hygiene friendly toilet or to make all female toilets menstrual hygiene friendly? There are issues of discretion and cost to consider here.

Students with a disability also have the same sanitation rights as everyone else, but these rights cannot be exercised if their different needs are not taken into account.  It is not just about their ability to get into and use the toilet, but also how they get to the toilet from the classrooms and indeed to the school. Again, social barriers of stigma and discrimination affects the extent of access to school for students with a disability. Around the world, children with disabilities form the largest cohort of out-of-school children.

It has long been understood that single sex toilets are important for maintaining safety and privacy for girls, but as the 2018 JMP report notes, single sex toilets can compromise the safety of transgender and intersex children:

“Requirements that children use toilets that match their sex at birth can lead to harassment or embarrassment for transgender children, and confusion about which facilities intersex children should use. Students who do not conform to a fixed idea of gender might experience humiliation, violence and abuse when using single-sex sanitation facilities”.

To address this issue, some schools in different countries are installing gender neutral/unisex toilet cubicles.

All three examples have a common solution: finding out about the potential and actual disadvantages people face, and actively supporting consultation and decision-making processes that involve those who are being left behind, or at risk of being left behind, to ensure that toilets are truly adequate and equitable for all.

Lastly, none of the above will be possible, if questions of sustainability are not addressed. In resource-constrained schools, what happens to the toilet once the pit becomes full? If resourcing for maintenance and emptying the pits is not planned from the outset, then they can no longer be used at all.

So Happy toilet day! And if you are lucky enough to be able to use a safe, clean and accessible toilet today, why don’t you spare a thought for the 1 in 3?

Photo: SNV Lao PDR


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