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Sanjay Wijesekera Headshot

When Women Are Dying to Go to the Toilet, We Can't Just Do Nothing

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A lot has already been said about the cruel fate of two young girls who, having no toilets at home, went out in the fields to defecate and ended up being raped and hanged.

Much has been said, and, like any other time when something shocks us and makes real in our minds what we have only vaguely imagined, we will dwell on it for a while. But in time, when it is no longer news, we will forget. We always do.

The WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) community has been calling attention to the lack of toilets for a long while. It is a problem which is particularly egregious in India, but it is not limited to that country. Across the world, at last count, 1 billion people still defecate in the open, and 2.5 billion people -- a third of the global population -- do not have adequate toilets.

Are these startling facts? They should not be.

There is a target in the Millennium Development Goals about sanitation -- toilets. The UN has instituted a World Toilet Day. In India, UNICEF has rolled out 'Take Poo to the Loo', an online campaign to raise the profile of the problem and help people confront and discuss the unmentionable topic.

Just in April this year, UNICEF convened a meeting with the finance ministers of countries with the biggest problem in sanitation, and with ministerial representatives of countries who are giving funds to help solve the problem, to try to move more quickly towards a world where everyone has a toilet. There were over 200 tangible and commitments made, including pledges from 17 countries to end open defecation by 2030 or sooner. These commitments will be tracked and reported.

The health dangers of open defecation are well documented. Diarrhoeal diseases linked to fecal contamination kill 1,400 children a day. Another 162 million children worldwide are stunted -- they are undersized and may have developmental delays -- with the lack of adequate sanitation, water and hygiene being a contributing factor.

I can recite these facts in my sleep, and so can anyone who works in health, nutrition or WASH.

We can and must do better. For the children who are paying the ultimate price; for the women who suffer the indignity and are exposed to the dangers which claimed the lives of two innocent teenagers in Uttar Pradesh.

It may be like moving mountains -- and literally mountains of feces in this case -- but there is no doubt that when we collectively put our minds to it we can find the solution for this seemingly intractable problem.

We need to change cultural practices and social norms. We need better, cheaper, more accessible ways of disposing of human waste.

But what we need most is the will, at all levels of society to do better. We can do it. We must. Before another young girl or woman pays the ultimate price just for doing what everyone has to: defecate.