World Toilet Day is all about dignity and life!

by Dinesh Suna last modified 08 March 2016 11:30 AM
World Toilet Day is all about dignity and life!

© Dinesh Suna

18 November 2015

The 19th of November is observed around the globe as United Nations World Toilet Day. The theme for this year’s World Toilet Day is highlighting the link between sanitation and nutrition. “Drawing the world’s attention to the importance of toilets in supporting better nutrition and improved health. Lack of access to clean drinking water and sanitation, along with the absence of good hygiene practices, are among the underlying causes of poor nutrition,” the United Nations' official event site reads.

For the past few years, at the Ecumenical Water Network (EWN) of the World Council of Churches, we have been trying to make a faith articulation around sanitation issues to commemorate the World Toilet Day.

Many might find it amusing to have a prayer service around the theme of sanitation or, to be more precise, prayers about “toilets”! For many of us “toilet talk” is a taboo. To do so in the prayers is all the more profane!

We can talk of water in our prayers due to its strong spiritual significance with all religions, including Christianity. But it's not the same for "sanitation"!

However, it is high time we break the silence, as lack of adequate sanitation affects 2.4 billion people - almost 4 times more people than those who are deprived of safe drinking water. Among the Millennium Development Goals, access to dignified sanitation was the one that saw the largest gap between aspirations and achievements.

Having to defecate in the open air infringes on human safety and dignity. This holds particularly true for women and girls, who lose their privacy and face humiliation and shame when they have to defecate in public; or they painfully hold their bladder and bowels all day – risking their health by waiting until night falls.

There is also a connection between toilets and violence against women. All too often, women are attacked, harassed, raped or even murdered near or in toilet facilities or in open spaces where they go because they lack such facilities.

The fact that women have to venture out at night to relieve themselves makes them an easy “prey” for the perpetrators. This issue became international news when last year two sisters from India, who had gone to a bush to relieve themselves, were raped and murdered.

Human dignity is at the core of sanitation rights. In the urban setting, people, particularly women, have to face all the more humiliation and shame in attending to nature’s call. If you took a train or bus in the early morning or evening near the slums in India (also known as "the world’s largest open-air toilet", with over 600 million defecate in open air) you would see long lines of groups of women and men relieving themselves on the railway tracks or on the roadside. Beside this humiliation, they risk being run over by a train or bus!

During an EWN visit to the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya, we asked the slum dwellers, do they have toilets in their homes? The boys started laughing and said, “yes we have ‘flying toilets’ at home”. Further probing revealed that due to lack of toilets and open space, most of them would defecate at home, in one corner of the single-room house, in a polythene bag, tie it and simply hurl it into the nearby garbage dumping site. Of course, there is a risk of “accidents”, as passers-by would occasionally be hit by a "flying toilet". (no pun-intended)

Not having a place to attend to sanitation needs with dignity or not having enough water to maintain the public toilets is one of the major reasons of contracting diseases.

In the wake of last week's terror attacks in Paris and Beirut, the whole world is in mourning. May the souls of those killed rest in peace! However, amidst our outrage over these brutal murders let us not forget those who loose their innocent lives far away from the TV cameras.

Let us also mourn the more than 4000 children who die every single day due to such preventable a disease as diarrhea! For them, too, we must cry: enough!

Poor sanitation is the major cause of diarrhea. It’s a shame that this happens till today when water and sanitation have been declared as human rights!

Many teenage girls remain absent from school when they start menstruating, as there are no toilets in their school, and therefore, there is no privacy. Frequent absences from school eventually make them school dropouts.

To raise awareness about toilets and sanitation issues among the leaders of the world, during this year's UN General Assembly in New York, the UN did a remarkable job! They replaced all the toilet papers in the UN headquarters in New York with a custom-printed version: a factsheet on sanitation!

So while enjoying the comfort of a modern water closet, the world leaders find the sanitation related statistics in their very hands. While attending the UN Sustainable Development Goals summit in September, I collected my “Souvenir"! (see the picture)

We as the church are called to play a prophetic role by speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves and are called to defend the rights of the vulnerable. To talk and pray about better sanitation and toilets for the poor is a good starting point, I feel!


The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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