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Women Step up to Tackle the Sanitation Crisis

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World Toilet Day last week passed unnoticed by many. Though November 19 was declared World Toilet Day in 2001, it has not yet gained the visibility achieved by World Water Day, which is observed with more fanfare every year on March 22. This is unfortunate as the need for access to safe sanitation is even more acute than the need for safe water. The latest estimate has almost 2.5 billion people in the world, or almost 40 percent of the population, without a safe or hygienic toilet, compared to 800 million people living without safe water.

The silence surrounding the sanitation crisis is partly explained by the fact a disproportionate burden of living without bathrooms falls on women and girls, who are prevented by social taboo from discussing such a personal issue. Even when they do, their voices carry less political weight. Modesty and personal reputation are important in many societies, meaning women cannot be seen going to the bush in the day. They have to 'go out' at night, which exposes them to the risk of harassment and attack. Many teenage girls drop out of school when they reach puberty due to the lack of separate toilet facilities. They too may face harassment if they are obliged to 'go outside'.

This year WaterAid joined a call on governments of both donor and aid recipient countries to recognize the critical importance of access to a safe toilet in improving the health, dignity and safety of women and girls worldwide. A video we released on World Toilet Day highlighted that one in three women worldwide lack access to safe sanitation.

While women suffer the most from poor sanitation, they are also key to the success of many community and household sanitation solutions.

I was fortunate to attend an activity organized in the remote Miskitu Indian village of Auhya Tara in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region of Nicaragua, bringing awareness to the issues behind World Toilet Day and recognizing the achievements of community sanitation promoters who every day are leading efforts among their peers to end the practice of open defecation and encourage investment in household toilets. I was pleased to note that 12 of the 20 community sanitation promoters were women. When WaterAid and local partners started work there in the middle of 2011, open defecation was practiced by upwards of 80 percent of the population. Now, thanks to the efforts of the community sanitation promoters, every household in the community has the prospect of obtaining a pour flush toilet.

Auhya Tara has a special symbolic significance for WaterAid in Nicaragua as it is the first communityto achieve 100% improved sanitation coverage.

The community sanitation promoters were thrilled to receive their training certificates. They spoke with great pride about their engagement with families during the installation process. At the end of this intensive two to three day process, families are left with a bathroom consisting of a toilet and handwashing facility incorporated in the home.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the women in the community were the first to express their gratitude. Jhonaisy, a women I spoke with in the community, shared that her bathroom was painted her favorite color -- blue. But she was most enthusiastic to share her relief that she and her children no longer have to expose themselves to the danger of descending the steep external steps (all houses in the zone are on stilts because of danger of flooding), sometimes at night, and going out into the bush.

Another neighbor agreed, saying that her new toilet was a boon for her aging mother who struggled to navigate the perilous outdoor staircase in their home. She was also quick to point out that her new bathroom was not plagued with any unpleasant odor, which was of great concern to her based on previous experiences with pit latrines. The construction, which is above a septic tank, is designed to eliminate odors and to require minimal periodic sludge removal.

While the women we spoke to focused on the benefits of improved safety the latrines bring, the health of their families will also now be better safeguarded, which should reduce the burden of care for sick family members that usually falls to women.

The new toilets can be maintained with ease. While they need to be flushed with water, there is no need to use the scarce drinking water which is in short supply, and which women and girls bear the greatest burden to carry home. The toilets are efficient water consumers, using less than half a gallon of water per flush. Householders just keep a bucket of non-purified water, usually from shallow wells, streams or rainwater catchment, in the bathroom to flush the toilet as needed.

We are greatly encouraged by the increasing demand for the new bathrooms and believe they have the potential to greatly enhance the quality of the lives of women and girls, increasing their pride, self esteem, safety and health. It is hardly surprising therefore that women have been so keen to train as community health educators and help others to build bathrooms.