Some things should never be taken for granted. Clean toilets is one of them.
I never gave much thought to loos as a symbol of dignity and privacy, even though UNICEF has launched numerous efforts such as the #Toilets4All campaign to explain how a lack of toilets around the world endangers public health by causing intestinal worms and diarrhea.
Two weeks ago, it took reports of a gang-rape and lynching of two teenage sisters in an Indian village for many to understand how a shortage of toilets also puts some women at higher risk of sexual violence. Like so many others, the girls had walked together into an open field to relieve themselves. With half of India’s population lacking a private toilet, public defecation is common. So is the likelihood that girls and women will be abused walking to and from these sites, according to a May 30 BBC report.
On Monday, NPR’s Morning Edition broadcast a memorable story about efforts to bring toilets to more Indian families. Correspondent Julie McCarthy highlighted the work of social activist Bindeshwar Pathak and his organization, Sulhabh International, which has built more than 1 million toilets throughout the populous country over the last four decades. The Associated Press reports the country still needs 120 million more latrines. Here’s an excerpted quote from Vijay Laxmi, 35, whose village has experienced a cultural shift:
“There has been a huge change in our lives. Before, the men would follow us, wait for us to sit in the field and watch. Now, thanks to Mr. Pathak, we have a lavatory at home… We don’t need to step out, and we feel better. Our dignity which is an ornament for us — is now safe.”
McCarthy’s report also mentioned a project by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reinvent the toilet for developing countries. Cal Tech won the foundation’s challenge in 2012. Efforts are underway to test the school’s prototype in India.
Here’s how it works:
What now? India’s new president should keep his promise to “build toilets first, temples later.”
Second, watch the work of the Gates Foundation. In March, the nonprofit published a blog post outlining what it will take to move to the next level of getting toilets into more homes. Here’s an excerpt from that interview with Chris Elias, president of the foundation’s Global Development Program, after he returned from a toilet fair in New Delhi:
The other thing we saw was some innovations in partnerships—among governments, civil society, and businesses. To ultimately deploy these solutions at scale is going to require a lot of partnership innovation.
There was so much buzz, so much excitement in Delhi. People are excited about the technology because they feel like we might finally be able to find a set of solutions that can be scaled as rapidly as the problems are scaling—and maybe faster—so we can start addressing the issue of safe sanitation and improve people’s dignity, improve the economic prospects of families and communities and countries. And, of course, save lives, because there are many lives lost to diarrheal disease and other consequences of poor sanitation.