Lily Watts|17.11.2014|News
Lack of access to single-sex toilets is a serious health issue, especially for girls

Picture the scene: you’re at home, desperate for a wee. So what do you do? You run to the toilet of course!

But imagine for a moment that going to the toilet wasn’t that simple. Imagine if every time you had to go, you had to leave your house and walk 5 min through a dark street into a secluded patch of grass just to relieve yourself.

Unfortunately, situations such as this are not uncommon; in fact they are the norm in slums, townships, and villages worldwide. And this lack of access to decent sanitation has life-threatening consequences for women.

In May this year, two unnamed girls walked away from their house in rural India at night to find somewhere private to relieve themselves. The next morning they were found dead, hanging from a mango tree after having been gang-raped.

Something as simple as a toilet could have saved the lives of these girls, yet over 2.5 billion people live with without access to functioning toilets—a shocking statistic that has devastating real-life effects. One of the reasons thousands of children die of diarrhoea and dysentery every year is because of polluted water supplies and poor sanitation.

Access to toilets is a fundamental element of gender equality and vital to the health and safety of women.

Having lived and worked in Burkina Faso, I have seen first-hand the impact that lack of sufficient toilet facilities can have on women and girls in developing countries.

Houses Burkina Faso are not generally built with toilets, so in both cities and villages women must walk to communal toilets—which are always unisex—to relieve themselves.

It’s kind of strange to think that in the bars and clubs of London and New York, unisex toilets are seen as cool. In developing countries such facilities are just dangerous.

Meanwhile in schools the problem is no better. Toilets are often far away from school buildings and do not have provisions for girls, which results not only in girls missing school when they get their period, but in an increased risk of violence both on the way to the latrines and in them.

Reflecting on her experiences, Lotika Shaunik Paintal, Co-Director of Wash Canada, said: “I was appalled while visiting one of the schools that I worked with in India, when the female teachers explained to me that they walked down the road to a friend’s place every time they needed to go to the toilet as there wasn’t one in school. Not for them, not for the students. Girls drop out of school every day—particularly pubescent girls—who have no privacy when they most need it [referring to menstruation].”

The answer to these problems should be simple, right? More single-sex toilets!

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But, as Louisa Gosling, programme manager at WaterAid points out, addressing violence requires shifts in society and culture; shifts in laws, in power relationships, and in economics.

Ever since my experiences in Burkina Faso, I have been speaking up about the importance of women’s rights, gender equality, and educating young people all over the world about respect for each other, for life, dignity and self-autonomy.

However, education can be a slow process. In the meantime, practical steps can be taken to help protect young women who don’t have easy access to toilets. Long grass and trees on the paths to toilets can be cut back, lighting provided in the form of wind-up or solar torches, and locks installed on toilet doors.

These are just three very simple, very cheap steps to mitigate the risks of violence, but they do not address deep-rooted societal issues.

This might sound weird, but I believe having a toilet should be a human right. Lack of toilets has long been recognised as a major health issue, and no woman should have to risk her life when she needs to go.

It is too late to save the teenage girls in India who were raped and murdered while travelling to perform a basic human function. We can though protect other women and advance gender equality if we break the taboo around toilets and build towns and cities with this basic human need at their core.

This story was originally posted by our friends at MTV Voices