At a school in western Kenya, some young poets are reciting a poem. ‘The Big Squat’ is a verse dramatising the proper use of toilets. The audience applauds and there are peals of laughter.
Most of us take them for granted, but around the world, millions of people do not have access to clean, hygienic toilet facilities. For them, toilets are not a laughing matter.
According to Hilda Winartasaputra, Plan’s Water and Sanitation specialist in Asia, one in three people in the world are forced to defecate in the open because they have nowhere else to go. In India there are now more people with a mobile phone link up than there are with a toilet, and diarrhoea kills more children every year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.
“Open defecation can cause contamination of water, food and soil and increases the number of flies and insects carrying excreta and spreading disease. When people do not wash their hands before meals and after defecating it further increases the risk of disease. World Heath Organisation statistics show that more than one in ten child deaths - about 800,000 per year worldwide is caused by diarrhoea.”
The young poets in Kenya are members of a health club, at their school, which is part of a Plan-supported ‘School Led Total Sanitation’ (SLTS) programme that has been instrumental in changing attitudes in their community towards improving sanitation standards.
According to head teacher Christine Ogwe, absenteeism was common among pupils who complained of stomach pains and diarrhoea. “Initially, we had only two toilets. Children found it hard to differentiate between boys’ and girls’ latrines and some sneaked into nearby bushes to relieve themselves. Now we have 15 latrines and hand-washing facilities.”
“Children have a big influence in disseminating information. Most homes now have latrines as a result of this,” explains club patron Mrs Miganda. “We have learnt the need to wash our hands, for clean latrines and personal hygiene. We know latrines are important in disease prevention,” says Class 7 pupil Redempta.
Risks for women and girls
For the millions of boys and girls who miss school every year because of illnesses resulting from poor sanitation, the implications are far-reaching, affecting their ability to learn and fully participate in their education.
In addition to the day-to-day humiliation and risks faced by women and girls without access to appropriate sanitation facilities, in countries such as Pakistan, women and girls still observe strict social codes and will only defecate at night, increasing the risk of violence and abuse.
And there is an economic impact. Ms Winartasaputra explains, “A World Bank study on the Economic Impact of Sanitation in Southeast Asia found that poor sanitation brought economic losses of at least US $9 billion per year, with communities suffering from illness, loss of life, high medical costs and time away from work.”
Plan works to stop open defecation through ‘Community Led Total Sanitation’ - focusing on triggering communities to eradicate it. “World Toilet Day offers a timely reminder that the humble toilet is one of the key tools in the fight to create healthier, safer and more dignified living conditions for all,” says Ms Winartasaputra.
If we want to resolve the global sanitaton crisis, we need to look at the gobal population growth and its distribution rates to understand where sanitation “hotspots” are now and in the future