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Swati Desai, Ph.D., LCSW Headshot

Take a Plunge and Clean the Sh.t.

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The United Nations General assembly has declared November 19th as the World Toilet Day.

November 2013 is also the month when I became a toilet hacker. As John Kluge and Michael Lindenmayer, the co-founders of Toilet Hackers would say, I became a "hack". A hack is a supporter of the mission championed by the Toilet Hackers: to build toilets in the parts of the world where they don't have them, educate people in better sanitary practices, and do it by starting innovative programs such as Girls For Girls.

Why am I so interested in toilets? I live on the Westside of Los Angeles, home of mansions with more number of toilets than bedrooms or people in the house, where toilet can be a room with spa and dressing room facilities. As a Los Angeles Times article describes, the wealthy in Los Angeles want bathrooms, and lots of them. Sitting on a warmed up toilet seat, it is hard to imagine the magnitude and the dire consequences of the open defecation accepted by over 2.5 billion people in the world as their everyday reality. It is hard to fathom that this problem is not just about "inconvenience," it is a serious health issue. Poor sanitation contributes to 1.5 million child deaths from diarrhea each year. Studies are showing that poor sanitation is a major factor in stunting the growth in children, more so than poor nutrition. Lack of toilets disempowers women the most because of the safety issues in going to a lonely place for defecation, missing school and prevalence of infections.

Flashback to being raised in India. Although the people my family associated with took pride in their impeccable clean kitchens and careful food handling habits, in most houses toilet was this wet and sorry little room relegated to a faraway corner of the house. You step outside the house and you faced disastrous public sanitation practices through which you needed to jump your way through as if completing an obstacle course. When I visited my grandparents' old house, a large house in a community of row houses each with its own bathroom, the four toilets for defecation were shared by all 20 odd houses and possibly 200 people. The toilets were a good five minute walk in a field in which you would occasionally see children squatting if all toilets were in use by adults. Need I say more about some experiences I have had which I have successfully blurred out? In some summers, when we visited my great grand parents in a village practically owned by them, the toilets were even more ancient in which a basket full of feces needed to be cleaned by the untouchables. In public places, the poor sanitation practices and lack of clean toilets resulted in extremely unpleasant and unhealthy experiences. The health issue resulting from such practices was evident in all types of epidemics and illnesses around us.

Back to today's India. The India with fancy malls, multiplexes, and heritage hotels, ripe for a five star holiday. In my yearly visits back I have seen and experienced this rapid change first hand. However, traveling by road to visit my parents, the ten hour journey through villages opened my eyes to the statistics that 70 percent of the rural population in India lacks toilets or sanitation education. India has more cellphones than toilets, some headlines say. Some things have not changed -- there are the same health scares related to water polluted with remnants of poor sanitation. Same are the issues around women and the lack of toilets. Same is the extreme lack of education about improved sanitation and improved public health.

Poor sanitation is a complex issue implying lack of health, wealth, and dignity for an entire community. The story of India is true for several other countries in which majority of people face poverty and related issues on a daily basis. Thanks to the efforts by various non-profit organizations such as World Toilet Organization, Sulabh toilets, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and my favorite: Toilet Hackers that this issue is beginning to get attention.

This is what I suggest. Right now, go on one of the websites of the organization of your choice and become a member. Like them on Facebook. Spread the word. Of course, I suggest toilet hackers - Girls For Girls! All this is free. If you want do go even further, donate money or your time. Volunteer. Again, spread the word.

Strange but true, the way to a poor person's prolonged life with dignity is through a toilet.