One in Three: Making Women’s Safety Top Priority in Meeting Their Right to Sanitation

Written by

Lisa Schechtman
Lisa Schechtman Lisa Schechtman is the head of policy and advocacy at WaterAid in America, the U.S. member of WaterAid International, the world’s largest NGO focused on providing safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene education (WASH) services for poor communities in 27 countries around the world. Prior to joining WaterAid, Lisa served as policy director at the Global AIDS Alliance, and was a member of the Developed Country NGO Delegation to the Board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Lisa has a Masters of Arts in International Human Rights and Global Health Affairs from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in English Literature and French Language from Northwestern University. She is based in Washington, DC.

Imagine living with no toilet in your home, village or slum. As a woman, your best option for privacy is to walk to the bush or an open field to urinate, defecate, or manage your menstrual hygiene needs, or to risk dirty crowded alleyways because latrine blocks are unavailable to you. But you know it’s not safe after dark: people are robbed, murdered, and raped. Now, imagine it’s the middle of the night, and you really need to go. What do you do?

Today we celebrate World Toilet Day. It may sound silly, but the scenario I described is stark—and frightening—reality for one in three women worldwide living without even a basic pit latrine. Not only that, one in three women will experience physical, sexual or emotional violence in her lifetime. For the world’s poorest women and girls, these two basic human rights violations often go hand in hand.

One in three women is a shockingly high figure. This combination of lack of sanitation, which has very little political will, and violence against women, which suffers from a difficult foundation of gender-based discrimination, could seem intractable. Yet, there are solutions.

One of the most basic solutions is to get people talking about it. That’s where World Toilet Day comes in.

Sanitation often takes a back seat to clean water. It’s subject to social taboos, kind of embarrassing. For women and girls, who have gender norms to contend with, and particular vulnerabilities that go along with these, lack of sanitation has implications beyond the serious health and economic ones we have come to understand quite well. One is violence against women and girls (VAWG).

Women are at great risk of violence when they have to go to an isolated area in order to defecate or urinate with a minimum of privacy, or when they must navigate crowded slums with no protection in order to use communal latrines.  Violence can come when a woman is at her most vulnerable, in a private moment. With little government support or commitment from the police to protecting women from gender-related crimes, this becomes a fact of life, a choice between two evils.

Latrines should be constructed with women’s needs and women’s safety in mind. Annette, who lives in a slum near Kampala, Uganda, told us:

“I use a public lavatory which is 100m from my house. It is not safe to go there at night, it is dangerous here. I have to go to the toilet at home and throw it outside.”

Annette Namougabo

Unplanned communities like Annette’s have little access to sanitation, often because the settlements are not legally recognized. Addressing this, along with legal barriers to a woman’s right to own or inherit land or property, can build accountability to the human right to sanitation.

WaterAid recently commissioned a poll of women living in slums in Nigeria, to learn more about their experiences. The results are a call to action:

  • 67% of respondents feel unsafe using a shared or community toilet in a public place.
  • 40% of women interviewed have no option but to defecate outside.
  • One quarter of these had first- or second-hand experiences of threats or actual physical, sexual or emotional violence in the past 12 months.

There are real challenges for women in rural areas, too. Sandimhia, who lives in rural Mozambique, walks 15 minutes over a dangerous bridge to reach a private place in the bush. She told us

“Sometimes when I go I feel ashamed and go back without defecating. Sometimes I wait until dark to go there so no one can see me…. At night it is very dangerous. People get killed….One woman I know of has been raped.”

Sandimhia Renato with her daughter Diani

Our new briefing on the links between violence against women and girls and lack of access to sanitation contains more detail on the research results—and our call for government leadership on this urgent crisis. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. In fact, the solution is to begin by customizing our responses so all needs are met. We must make a commitment, work together, and keep our promises. But we must start by talking about it.

We invite you to join us in celebrating toilets this week. You can begin by watching this video, and sharing it with three friends.  On behalf of the one in three women with whom we work to restore basic dignity, safety, and well-being, thank you for spreading the word.

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