World Toilet Day - what's the value of a toilet?

Mr Ajay Shah the Sub-in-charge of Parsa Healthcare Facility in his wheelchair on the ramp by new  accessible latrines

Healthcare facilities are expected to have basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) provisions, yet three of the four in Parsa rural municipality, Sarlahi district, didn't have adequate, inclusive toilets and other WASH facilities when project partner SNV Nepal pivoted to support the district's WASH efforts in 2019, to help prevent COVID-19 transmission. (photo: Ms Sapana Rana / RWUA, Sarlahi Nepal)

By Joanna Mott, Water for Women Gender and Social Inclusion Specialist

Most of us in Australia are fortunate enough to not be aware of the true value of a toilet. I say ‘most’, because still for some, access to a hygienic, safe and accessible toilet in public spaces and institutions is far from a reality, such as for homeless people, people with disabilities, people of diverse genders, and people living in remote communities.

Yet, across the world, 3.6 billion people don’t have access to a decent toilet of their own. That’s nearly half the world’s population. And those who don’t 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 water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs across the Asia 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 (Sustainable Development Goal target 6.2).

Valuing toilets is what today is all about. So, what makes a toilet valuable for all? Accessibility, equity, privacy, hygiene, safety and dignity come to mind. But so do the barriers and opportunities that come from not having or having access to a toilet. For example, the link with the right to safely managed sanitation and the right to education is evident.

Adolescent girl students need sanitation facilities that allow them to practise dignified menstruation - toilets that are safe, private, clean and allow for hygienic disposal of sanitary materials. The absence of these facilities reflects entrenched social barriers of taboo and stigma relating to menstruation, which often combine to produce higher non-attendance rates of girls at school.

Students with a disability also have the same sanitation rights as everyone else, but these rights can’t be exercised if their different needs aren't taken into account. For instance, in schools, it’s 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 school in the first place. Again, social barriers of stigma and discrimination affect the participation of 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 Joint Monitoring Program report notes, single sex toilets can compromise the safety of transgender and gender diverse 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, as well as single sex toilets.

All three examples of barriers 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 are at risk of being left behind, to ensure that toilets are truly valuable for all, and valued by all.

So, Happy World Toilet Day! And if you’re lucky enough to be able to use a toilet today, spare a thought for those who can’t.

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