Since 2001, World Toilet Day has been recognized globally, to bring focus to the 2.4 billion people worldwide who lack access to a safe, clean bathroom. If you were to put a magnifying glass to that astoundingly large population, you would see that women struggle most from the lack of adequate sanitation: One in 3 women worldwide–– or 526 million––have nowhere safe to go. This is a problem that most of us cannot even imagine.
The absence of toilets isn’t just an inconvenience, but puts women at risk for disease, harassment, and even violence. These risks only intensify at night when girls and women have no choice but to venture out in the dark to relieve themselves. In India––where a shocking 48% of the population lack access to basic sanitation, girls and women are especially at risk. In rural areas where toilets are a rarity, they encounter the harshest conditions. According to a senior police official in Bihar, India, some 400 women would have escaped rape in 2013 if they had toilets in their homes.
In an interview with the Indian Express, 15-year-old Neelam who lives in the village of Katra Sadatganj talks of the harassment she has encountered while trying to relieve herself in the fields at night: “The boys know what we are going for. They follow if it’s only girls with no elders, and flash torches on our faces when we are relieving ourselves in the fields. If we get up hurriedly, they laugh and run away.” She even recalls older men in tractors stopping and flashing their lights on her and friends if they are near the road at night. “When we run away in shame, they flash their lights at our backs, so everyone knows what we were doing.”
As Neeraj Jain, Chief Executive of WaterAid India explains it, "The violence women can suffer over the simple right to go to the toilet is unacceptable. Simple, sustainable improvements can make a world of difference in supporting women to claim this most basic human right."
Providing girls and women with safe toilets has the power to transform their reality, and ensure they can live free from violence and shame. When girls and women gain access to adequate sanitation there is a ripple effect: girls stay in school longer, their health improves, and they gain more socioeconomic opportunities. And if that is not reason enough, for every $1 invested in water and sanitation there is a $4 economic return.
The world cannot afford to ignore the sanitation crisis any longer. Now is the time to speak up and make change for the billions of people who need access to toilets. We can create a future in which no woman has to fear violence or shame when all she wants to do is go to the bathroom.
This article was written by Brittany Tatum in support of Women Deliver.