Potty politics, or what having no toilet teaches us about women’s rights

My bathroom has been dysfunctional for the last four weeks. A crew of contractors, plumbers, and unidentified construction-observers demolished my beloved bathroom in order to repair a leak. And for the last four weeks, I’ve been running to the neighbors for every pee. As a small bladdered person, this makes for a lot of running.

This potty hiccup got me thinking about what it means to lack something we take for granted — a toilet. More than that — a safe place to pee. If you’ve got a toilet that works, that is hygienic, that is accessible, and that can be reached safely — you’re lucky.

3.6 billion people in the world don’t.

Yes — 45% of the world does not have access to a functional, clean, safe toilet.

That’s pretty… shitty. (It was just a matter of time before I threw in a poop-pun).

But seriously, I know this because of my work in the field. There, we spend a lot of time talking about bathrooms.

In many parts of the world, toilets are either totally absent or insufficient, poorly managed, and underfunded. The consequences of this are severe: health, the environment, and the economy all suffer. And the poorest and most marginalized communities bear the brunt of this.

And guess who is among the most marginalized? Yes, women and girls.

Let’s talk about women’s rights from the washroom.

Lacking access to clean and safe toilets is intrinsically linked to the dynamics of poverty and inequality — and women and girls are still more poor, and less equal. The most recent data shows over 500 million women lacked access to sanitation facilities. In other words, 13% of the world’s female population is unable to use a toilet to go to the bathroom. What’s more, in 2018, 60% of the total number of people who had to resort to open-air defecation were women.

What happens when you have to “go” outside? You increase your risks of dangerous crime — sexual violence being the most dangerous. When women have to use the outdoors as a bathroom, their risk of sexual violence is 40% higher in Kenya, and 50% higher in India.

Those are very big risks to take — just to be able to pee and poo freely. Ultimately, there’s not enough data on this but — do we need more data?! We already know this: women are at higher risk of illness, disease, and sexual violence due to inadequate access to dependable sanitary facilities. That should be enough to galvanize us into action.

And this is only heightened in times of emergency. Sanitation facilities that lack privacy, locks, or lighting are major danger spots, increasing risks to sexual violence. During my humanitarian response work in Haiti post-earthquake, we were trying to provide services for those who needed it the most — women and girls. Conditions in camps were extremely difficult, meaning there were few sanitation facilities, women had no privacy, and lighting was poor — if not totally absent. All this contributed to an increased risk of rape.

Walking long distances to isolated facilities that are poorly lit, unsafe, and limited in number mean toilets are very often the sites of sexual violence.

Following the earthquake in Haiti, it was reported that “open-air sanitary facilities, insufficient bathing areas, and lack of lighting at night intensified the risks of sexual violence.” We knew this, and we worked to ensure that hygiene facilities were separated, lit, lockable — in short, SAFE.

Even if an assault doesn’t take place, the fear of such an incident can put women and girls off using facilities, leading to further health issues and complications.

In Haiti, we had to look for creative ways to meet women’s needs including community patrolling, improved lighting, and providing tents for women to use as safe spaces. And a lot of advocacy with allies and partners and UN agencies and other organizations to provide these things.

Emergency response — or any response — can not be gender-blind. We have gender guidelines for how to do this right — we just need to use them! And in using them, we mitigate risk for women and girls and help keep them safe.

The bottom line is this: potty politics is gendered. And we need to understand the gendered implication of our natural functions, ensuring that we’re all able to do them freely and safely.

The world is still not on track to have reached universal access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene services by 2030.

Decision-makers need to account for female-friendly public toilets. This also means we need a greater number of women representatives at the decision-making level. When women are present — and powerful — they are counted. And their needs are taken into account. When there are no women, or too few women, women’s needs are forgotten. In 2018, 80% of water utility staff hired were male.

We know that there is a direct link between women’s rights and dependable access to toilets. Let’s not be afraid to potty-talk. It would be dangerous not to.

November 19 is World Toilet Day. Personally, I’m counting on having a toilet by then.

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Lina AbiRafeh

Lina AbiRafeh

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Global women's rights expert, humanitarian aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!