Written by: Thomas Hilberg Rahbek (@hilberger90)
Did you notice two weeks ago, when it was UN’s World Toilet Day??
Some people did. Some people thought it was a joke. But most people just didn’t notice. Why is it then important that people notice? Well, as stated by the UN, 1 billion people still defecate in the open, endangering both themselves and others. The substantial amount of people affected raises the question – why it is not a higher priority? Poor sanitation is a killer. It’s implications, especially for children under 5 with over 300.000 diarrheal related deaths per year, can not be ignored. Thus the purpose of the day was to “make sanitation for all a global development priority and urge changes in both behaviour and policy on issues ranging from improving water management to ending open defecation.”
It may be difficult for people in high-income countries to grasp the importance of World Toilet Day. In these countries, talking about toilets is something for children to snigger at and the rest might feel uncomfortable talking about the subject. Our thoughts about what goes on in the toilet in an everyday context are more often connected to their use of creating a laugh than in their sanitational value. Due to the ease of access to toilets that exist for everyone in these countries, we don’t experience the problems first hand. Sometimes you do not notice the importance of something until you don’t have it anymore. That would definitely be the case with a toilet.
This is why a few Global Health students, who work as part of the United Nations Youth Association, concerning global health, took the initiative to set up an event on World Toilet Day, promoting awareness about the significant challenges we are facing in this field. At the event we introduced the concept of World Toilet Day and had inspiring talks by NGO’s and Director of COPE, Peter Kjær Mackie Jensen on the importance of sanitation in low-income settings and how work is carried out in the field.
The challenge we faced in promoting the event, is the same that the world community is faced with, as how to take sanitation seriously in countries that don’t experience particular sanitation issues. Communication is key. We tried to use people’s lightly humorous feel about toilets and put it to good use, by making a Poop Quiz incorporating important facts about sanitation, but keeping it easy by mixing fun with academics. Still the challenge is to raise awareness without this coming out as just another prepubescent joke or something that people won’t talk about. As social entrepreneur, Joe Madiath, explains in his 2014 TED TALK, food is a great conversation topic, but after it goes through the digestive system, the interest fades away.
The challenge is, walking the fine line between entertaining and educating. When the topic is filled with taboo, and a laugh not far away, how do we get the topic higher on the global agenda? Global Citizen tried to use an interesting approach in getting attention, empathy and a deeper understanding of how the problem is experienced in the local context. They set up a see-through toilet in a public space, so people could get a sense of the lack of privacy that open defecation creates. Check out how it looked here.
This is the feeling of 1 billion people, defecating in the open, that we haven’t noticed. Let’s think about whether we can live with the knowledge that so many people lack such a basic amenity. The problem is not just limited to the bottom billion, but up to 2.4 billion don’t have access to improved sanitation. The inhuman conditions violating human rights and dignity should never be accepted when we have the possibilities to do something about it. This is not rocket science. We need to go back to basics, because this is something you can’t live without, something you should not live without.
Lack of good sanitation is a major risk factor for developing a ton of diseases, that are all preventable. We need to stress the importance of better sanitation for improving health and wellbeing of people. It’s a human right of equal importance as the right to food, shelter and security.
The lack of sanitation and its consequences inhibits the potential of the people affected. Children that are exposed to poor sanitation have higher risks of acquiring helminths which drains them of energy so crucial for their ability to learn in school, stunts their growth and physical development and can lead to chronic health complications for their entire life. It also endangers the safety of women, who often wait until the cover of darkness as a way of getting privacy, but also making them more vulnerable to assault and rape.
An effective sanitation system would help prevent situations like these, but it can’t go without emphasising the importance of actually using it.
Because toilets are lifesavers and the implications of not having or using them are enormous and of urgent need of a resolution. Breaking the silence and spreading the message means overcoming the taboo. So start talking about the untalkable, start talking shit. Smiles are allowed, then it will be remembered. But let’s not forget that we should smile because the solution is not impossible. The answer is not hidden, and prevention of disease is possible for the bottom billion. One third of the world doesn’t have access to improved sanitation and the challenge will only be increasing with other simultaneously occurring processes like population growth and climate change.
So next up is the World Water Day on the 22nd of march. I hope you notice.