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  World Toilet Day, 19 November un water

 Equality, dignity and the link between gender-based violence and sanitation

19 November has been formally recognized by the United Nations General Assembly as World Toilet Day

world toilet day 2014World Toilet Day has been marked by international and civil society organizations all over the world for many years. However, it was not formally recognized as an official UN day until a UNGA resolution of 24 July 2013, which requested UNWater, in consultation with relevant entities of the United Nations system and in collaboration with Governments and relevant stakeholders, to facilitate the implementation of World Toilet Day in the context of Sanitation for All.

The objective of this initiative is to make sanitation for all a global development priority and urge changes in both behaviour and policy on issues ranging from improving water management to ending open defecation. Today, 2.5 of the world’s seven billion people, mostly in rural areas, do not have proper sanitation and 1.1 billion people still defecate in the open. This has significant impacts on human health, dignity and security, the environment, and social and economic development. The countries where open defecation is most widely practiced are the same countries with the highest mortality rate of children under five, high levels of under nutrition and poverty, and large wealth disparities.

World Toilet Day intends to raise awareness of sanitation issues – including hygiene promotion, the provision of basic sanitation services, and sewerage and wastewater treatment and reuse in the context of integrated water management – ad make a case for sanitation for all. It intends to encourage UN Member States and relevant stakeholders, including civil society and non-governmental organizations, to promote behavioural change and the implementation of policies in order to increase access to sanitation among the poor and end the practice of open defecation.


• 1 in 3 women are victims of violence at least once in their lifetime.
• 1 in 3 women do not have access to safe toilets
• 2.5 billion people – that’s 1/3 of the globally population – do not have access to safe toilets
• 1 billion people do not have access to a toilet, and are forced to go out in the open
• 9/10 people who defecate openly live in rural settings


“A woman does not feel safe walking to the toilet. Men rape women there at night.”
“The toilets are far from our houses…A man can just go anywhere to pass urine, but a woman has to walk all the way to the toilets.”
“There are two main difficulties for women when it comes to toilets in our communities. The first one is money, and the second is that at night mend can easily rape and murder us.”
“It is secret and shameful for others to know that you are having your period.”
“Women, more than men, suffer the indignity of being forced to defecate in the open, at risk of assault and rape.”
“Women, generally being responsible for children and other dependents, are more affected by a lack of sanitation and by the indignity of living without sanitation…”

Equality, Dignity…and Toilets?

equalityOne billion people around the world do not have access to a toilet, and are forced to go out in the open. Having to defecate openly infringes on human safety and dignity. This holds particularly true for women and girls, who loose privacy and face shame having to defecate in public, or – after painfully holding their bladder and bowels all day – risk attack by waiting until night falls.

Since 2000, the world has been working towards ending open defecation by improving access to toilets through the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. However, significant progress, particularly that of which is equitable, is still needed.

As highlighted in most recent progress reports, numerous inequalities in access to toilets exist. Urban areas gain, and have significantly more access to services than rural. Nine out of 10 people defecating openly live in rural areas. Within urban and rural areas, the wealthy have disproportionately greater access to toilets than impoverished populations. Not stopping there, disparities in access exist between religious, ethnic, and other identifiable groups, with disenfranchised groups seeing less access to services.

Where toilets do exist, additional inequalities present in usability. Toilets generally remain inadequate for populations with special needs, such as the disabled and elderly, and women and girls requiring facilities to manage menstrual hygiene. Without accessible toilets for these populations, they remain excluded from opportunities to attend school and gain employment.

In striving to achieve access to toilets under the Millennium Development Goals, inequalities have become apparent. A shift towards equitable approaches is vital to achieving goals and protecting dignity.

Toilets and Gender-Based Violence

Cant waitOne in three women around the world are victims of v i o lence at least once in their lifetime. The connections between toilets and violence against women may not initially be obvious. But consider a woman without access to a toilet in her home. When travelling to and from public toilets, using the toilet, or venturing from her home to defecate openly, she is vulnerable to violence. This vulnerability is becoming increasingly recognized and described.

Women experiencing regular discrimination from men, express fear of assault or rape when having to leave the house to use the toilet. Reports of attacks or harassment near or in toilet facilities, as well as near or in areas where women defecate openly, are not uncommon. The consequences of such violence against women are both physical and psychological for the victim, and extend to families and communities that persist to live with gender based inequalities and lost economical potential of victims. You might remember the two young girls from Uttar Pradesh India raped and murdered this year while looking for a toilet. While it is important to recognize that lack of access to toilets was not the cause of this violence, not having a safe place to go to the toilet facilitated the violent act.

It is our duty to protect vulnerable women from experiences of gender-based violence. Universal access to safe toilets has a clear role to play in defending women’s

Can Toilets Reduce Violence Against Women?

Toilets can play a role in protecting women. The most obvious way is through access.

With access to a toilet, women no longer have to defecate in the open where they feel ashamed, and vulnerable to predators when having to expose themselves publicly. In addition to access, there are numerous considerations for limiting the risk of violence associated with toilets.

For example, it is important to consider the distance in which women have to travel to access toilets. The closer a toilet is to the home, the less amount of time a women is vulnerable during travel, commonly by dark, to reach a toilet. Also, being within proximity to the home and established social networks, a women feels less vulnerable when relieving herself, and able to call for help if needed.

The conditions in which women need to travel to access toilets, as well as conditions of toilet facilities, also play a role. A footpath that is well covered for example puts a woman in a more vulnerable situation than a path that is exposed and well-travelled. While a toilet that is light, is with a lock on the door, and has separate facilities for men, women, and children, does more to protect against violence than facilities lacking such conditions.

Access to safe toilets and violence against women is a complex issue. On top of the examples provided on how toilets can play role in protecting women against violence, it is important to consider culture, gender roles, policy, community participation, and collaboration across sectors in efforts to limit experiences of gender based violence. While poor access to toilets is not the cause of violence against women, it can increase a women’s vulnerability to violence. As advocates of safe toilets for all, it is our obligation to consider protection against violence in all aspects of policy and programming. Otherwise, our work can exacerbate vulnerabilities to violence.




Current Issue: Africa Water & Sanitation & Hygiene March-April 2017 Vol.12 No.2