The World Toilet Summit and the untold story of the plight of girls and women in the developing world

Written by Mark Balla. Numerous important issues were discussed at the summit, but with this Friday 11 October being the International Day of the Girl Child[iv], I would like to take this opportunity to talk about some of the issues that face girls and women in the developing world and how this directly relates to the provision of basic sanitary facilities such as toilets.

7 October 2013

Last week I was one of three Australian delegates at the World Toilet Summit in the city of Surakarta in Indonesia. There were over 300 delegates from around the world and 45 speakers from a range of industries, government bodies and NGOs.

The World Toilet Summit was the brainchild of Singaporean social entrepreneur, Jack Sim, who founded the World Toilet Organization[i] in 2001. Jack is better known by the moniker “Mr Toilet”[ii]. He is a natural, engaging speaker with a wealth of knowledge and a passionate belief in making the world a better place. Jack’s advocacy on this issue has now resulted in the United Nations declaring 19 November World Toilet Day[iii].

Numerous important issues were discussed at the summit, but with this Friday 11 October being the International Day of the Girl Child[iv], I would like to take this opportunity to talk about some of the issues that face girls and women in the developing world and how this directly relates to the provision of basic sanitary facilities such as toilets.

Today, nearly 40% of the world’s population, or around 2.5 billion people, lack access to basic sanitation[v]. These people have no choice but to defecate in the open. This means they go in fields, on the side of roads, in rivers, directly into open sewers, in rubbish dumps or basically anywhere they can find a little bit of privacy.[vi]

 

Toilets and educational disadvantage

The lack of basic sanitary amenities also results in educational disadvantage. In India, 23% of girls drop out of school when they reach adolescence because their schools do not have toilets for them, which means that they have no effective way of dealing with menstruation when at school. A further 25% miss one week of school every month for the rest of their school lives for the same reason.[vii]

The social impacts of this reality are appalling. Girls start their adult lives with an educational disadvantage that can never be recovered. Many girls in India and around the developing world marry and start having children when they are 14 or 15 years of age.[viii]  Lack of toilets in schools is certainly one of the factors that lead to these early marriages.

The sons of these young, uneducated women grow up believing that women are not important. Their mothers are simply not equipped to explain properly to the boys that this is not true. Boys growing up in villages often move to big cities when they are old enough to work. They arrive in the cities with this ingrained attitude of disrespect toward women.[ix]

Throughout the developing world this is a major factor in creating a dangerous environment for women. In the Indian state of Bihar, close to 50% of reported rapes last year occurred when women and girls went out of their houses at night to look for somewhere private to go to the toilet.[x]

Numerous studies throughout the developing world have shown conclusively that child mortality among children of illiterate mothers is at least 50% higher than among children of educated mothers.[xi] Furthermore, educated mothers are far more likely to insist that their children are also educated. Once again, by providing toilets in schools we have an opportunity to improve the education of these future mothers and their children.[xii]

Improving educational opportunities for all children in the developing world makes sense in so many ways and starts with the provision of toilets!

Studies around the world have conclusively shown:

Education

  • that people are less likely to commit crimes of violence if they have increased literacy levels;[xiii]
  • that women in developing countries who are better educated have fewer children and the children are far more likely to survive childhood[xiv];
  • that every additional year spent in school leads to a 10% increase in lifelong earning potential[xv] ;

 

Economic costs

  • that poor sanitation costs countries up to 7.2% of their GDP[xvi];
  • that economic losses from lack of access to sanitation amount to estimated losses worldwide of US$260 billion annually[xvii],  
  • that improved access to sanitation and hygiene could free up 50% of hospital beds in Africa[xviii].

 

Clearly there are many complicated social and political issues at play here, however, one thing is clear: empowering women is critical if the lives of people in the developing world are to be improved.

If girls were given the same opportunity as boys to complete their schooling, the world would most certainly be a better place. Until all schools in the world provide secure, clean toilets for girls, we cannot even begin to make this happen.

In developed countries we can choose to let days like International Day of the Girl Child and World Toilet Day simply pass us by OR we can also choose support these days and contribute to resolving this serious issue.

BIO LINE

Mark Balla is a social entrepreneur and a member of the World Toilet Organization. He is Director of Humanitarian Projects for Cleantech Water Solutions and he is the founder of We Can’t Wait!, a fledgling NFP whose vision is to empower people in the developing world through education, improved health and sustainable economic opportunity.

 

The mission of We Can’t Wait! is to achieve this vision through provision of clean, safe and sustainable sanitation in schools and surrounding communities with a clear focus on improving the long term outlook for girls and women. We firmly believe that women hold the key to an improved life for everyone in these communities.

 

We Can’t Wait! is planning an event for Melbourne in early 2014 with the aim of raising awareness of this issue. Organisations and individuals who believe they can help make a real difference through provision of expertise, products or financial support are invited to contact Mark Balla at mark@wecannotwait.org.