Nov. 19, 2015, marks “World Toilet Day,” which may sound like some sort of a punchline to people who have lived their lives with easy access to modern sanitation, taking it for granted. But in the world at large, one in three people — about 2.4 billion spread throughout many countries — lacks a toilet or latrine. The resulting “open defecation” compromises human health, dignity and security, the environment, and social and economic development, the United Nations says.
To state a few related examples, poor or absent sanitation spreads diarrhoeal diseases, a leading cause of death in children. It keeps large numbers of girls out of school, depriving them of an education. It also makes women and girls vulnerable to attack as they go outside to “go to the bathroom” (where there is no such room, and very little privacy).
“We have a moral imperative to end open defecation and a duty to ensure women and girls are not at risk of assault and rape simply because they lack a sanitation facility,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his message for World Toilet Day, which focuses this year on the theme of “Equality, Dignity and the Link Between Gender-Based Violence and Sanitation.”
After the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council affirmed the human right to water and sanitation in 2010, people first questioned whether they should be called out separately or remain embedded in other human rights in which they play a role, such as the rights to a healthy environment and an adequate standard of living. Interested parties continue to discuss whether water and sanitation should be one right or two. They’re clearly related in many ways, but each sometimes requires — and deserves — separate consideration. How to do this, especially in the context of the new Sustainable Development Goals adopted at the UN in September, is an ongoing question. Goal 6 currently keeps the two together.
While the human right to water has become a hot-button issue due to increased alarm over scarcity and threats of conflict, sanitation has grabbed fewer headlines and may be relegated to the status of a “poor cousin,” to borrow a phrase from Inga T. Winkler, a scholar in residence at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the New York University School of Law. I was fortunate enough recently to attend a forum where she discussed her forthcoming academic paper outlining the evolution of the human right to water and sanitation, as well as the case for separation. Winkler is a prominent scholar in the human right to water and sanitation, having authored a seminal book on the subject and served as a legal advisor to the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque.
Open defecation and other problems of poor sanitation aren’t easy to talk about, but overcoming taboos through open discussion is crucial to making practical changes that save lives and help realize the human right to sanitation worldwide.
Seven Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the State of the World’s Toilets – WaterAid UK
World Toilet Day: More Important Than It Sounds – Huffington Post United Kingdom
Much Ado About the Loo, on World Toilet Day – New Straits Times Online
#WECANTWAIT campaign – UN-Water
World Toilet Day – UN.org
WorldToilet.org and UN World Toilet Day on Twitter: @worldtoiletday
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