Toilets, the unsung key to gender equality

130 million girls did attend school today — and of them 100,000 are of high school age.

Why?

While there are a variety of different reasons why these girls do not go to school, one commonality between them is somewhat counterintuitive… toilets. Or more broadly, access to proper sanitation, including toilets and menstrual support.

Often times in schools where the female attendance rate is low, there are not safe, gender-segregated bathrooms or sufficient access to femenine hygiene products.

This will make a girl feel uncomfortable or embarrassed to use the washroom out of fear that she will be intruded upon, teased or assaulted by her peers. It contributes to the stigma surrounding menstruation, and dissuades girls from attending school.

In India, it has been estimated that 1 in every five girls will drop out of school when they get their period, in certain areas, it is as many as 4 in 5 girls. This is because these girls do not have access to the support and resources to make them feel welcomed at school.

14-year-old Sanjana lives in a small community in Northern India. She left school at the age of 12 after she first got her period. The school she used to attend had latrines that are separated between girls and boys, but they have no locks on the doors and boys will often use the stalls marked for girls. She says that she had little privacy and security when she needed to relieve herself, and that she was constantly anxious and dreaded using the washroom.

When Sanjana got her period, she did not have access to the proper supplies or feel as though she could ask anyone for help, lest she be overheard or ridiculed. So, the second time she got her period, she permanently dropped out of school.

In the first world, we don’t often think about toilets or sanitation in general as having great bearing on our educational success. In fact, most of the time we don’t even talk about toilets because they are regarded as being private or even unpleasant things. They’re insignificant at the best of times and disgusting at the worst. But, how can we resolve an issue if we can’t even talk about it intelligently — if we can’t even bring awareness to it.

Kanika Thakar — or Kiki to those who know her — is the Gender Focal Point and Programme Officer at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). In 2014, when she was working at the UN Headquarters in New York and later in the Global Water Partnership in Stockholm, she noticed that the issue of sanitation was seldom talked about in relationship to water. Inspired by this, she created the social media campaign “#toilettalk” to break the “poo taboo” — the stigma surrounding toilets and menstruation.

When did you get the idea to create #toilettalk?

“In 2014 I did an internship at the United Nations Headquarters where I was reporting on how water was being featured in the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals. While listening in to the negotiations I realized how little toilets were talked about. Actually, before 2013 I never thought about or talked about toilets myself! It was only after a visit to a project in India did I see how important toilets are and the power they have to transform the lives of women and girls! Feminism is at my core, and it was really eye-opening for me to see how a lack of toilets further exacerbate gender inequality.”

What do you hope to inspire through #toilettalk?

“The philosophy behind #toilettalk is that you can’t solve a problem you can’t talk about. I hope to get people thinking and talking about toilets and recognizing how important toilets are to their lives and for global development. The ultimate goal is that if we can raise awareness among every day citizens then eventually we will be able to raise awareness among government and funding agencies.”

“Today, water and sanitation programming split the same pot of money. And water programming gets most of that. I believe that part of this is due to water being an easier issue to talk about. It is my belief that if we can normalize the conversation around toilets, poo and menstruation then we will be able to direct more funds towards addressing these issues.”

You are on an list of individuals who in times of emergency can be called upon to provide humanitarian relief. What is an experience in this line of work relating to sanitation that has stayed with you?

“The most important lesson I have learned is to take time to listen to the people you are trying to help. I think we often go in with an “I know best” mentality. But I have been humbled so many times by the insights that communities bring to the surface that I never would have thought about. It is also incredibly important to consult several people, because different people can experience the same problem in very different ways. It is also critically important to consult with women and men separately because often women don’t feel comfortable to raise their toilet concerns in the presence of others. I mean, how comfortable would you or I be to talk about how we manage our periods in front of a group of men? But when we take the time to ask people what they want and how they want it we can come up with solutions that can greatly benefit people who are facing their worst moments.”

When installing toilets and implementing sanitation systems in the developing world, what are some important considerations to keep in mind?

“Consulting with the community is always the most important thing to do. There are lots of stories from the development community about toilets not being used because they are facing the wrong way, they are the wrong colour, they are the wrong design…. it is critically important that you don’t bring your own assumptions into a situation, but rather ask people what they want.”

“It is also really important to think long term and think about how will the toilets be managed after you are gone. What happens with the toilet pits are full? Have you built a system that is resilient to time and climate? Will the poo just be dumped into the environment or will it be safely managed? We need to do better at thinking beyond serving an immediate need.”

“Its also important to think about how can what you have built give more to the community. Poo has a lot of value in terms of the energy and nutrients it contains, building toilet systems that turn poo into a valuable resource for fertilizers and/or energy have also become a really important part of successful toilet projects.”

What can students and youth in the first world do to contribute to this problem’s resolution in a respectful and considerate manner?

“Talking about it is really the first step. Talk to people you know about toilets and why they are so important. Raise awareness about the issue. The first few times might be a little uncomfortable, but it will quickly become very normal for you and those around you. It is also really important to break taboos around menstruation. 50% of the world’s population menstruates and none of us would be here without it and yet we never talk about it. Let’s be proud of menstruation and talk about it openly. Hiding behind these taboos prevent us from achieving more equal societies and slow the development of solutions to ease menstrual management.”

“In Canada we are very lucky to have a democratic government. It is our responsibility as citizens to tell our government what is important to us. I encourage youth to write to their elected officials and ask them to put more funding towards toilets and menstrual hygiene management.”

“As young Canadians it is especially important that you raise these issues at home. There are many indigenous Canadians who are lacking access to clean water and sanitation. Children and youth are really struggling, sometimes even taking their own lives, because they are lacking these basic services, that’s how bad the situation can be. We need to do more at home and we can’t leave it to indigenous communities to fight these battles on their own. Canadian youth have a strong voice, they need to use it and stand in solidarity with their indigenous brothers and sisters.”

Unfortunately, for many girls around the world, going to the washroom can be an act of courage rather than a given. To effect real sanitary change, we have to be more than aware of this issue… we have to be willing to talk about them openly and intelligently. Let’s change using the washroom to something that all of us are able to take for granted.

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