World Toilet Day 2012

by Cristiana Strava

Did you know that 660 million Indians have no access to sanitary facilities for relieving themselves? A staggering 2.5 billion people worldwide have to cope with this lack, while 1.1 billion are forced to practice open defecation. In cities this often means defecating in ditches or on rail tracks. Can you imagine being the one in three people who does not have a toilet or clean water?

Observed on Nov. 19 each year since 2001, the purpose of World Toilet Day is to raise awareness and bring people together to address global sanitation problems. The organizers are coordinating multiple events worldwide. Among them is an interactive sculpture of a four-and-a-half meter tall squatting figure beside London's Tower Bridge. Titled "The Public Toilet," the sculpture's face will act as a screen for projecting videos and photos sent by supporters from around the world.

Sanitation is a basic human right. Source: World Toilet Day

Access to sanitation and water was recognized in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly as a basic human right. Lack of access to safe and sanitary facilities disproportionately affects people in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. But while the U.N. decision was considered a breakthrough at the time, many agree that a more concerted effort is needed to tackle the current situation.

For World Toilet Day, "Why Poverty?" has released a short comical film to break the taboo around the issue of toilets and sanitation. While there is a strong link between lack of access to toilets and poverty, gender further complicates the issue. For adolescent girls in developing countries, access to clean and safe toilet facilities is a surprisingly accurate indicator of success later in life. In India, research has shown that 23 percent of girls without access to private hygienic facilities drop out of school when they reach puberty, and are more likely to suffer from health problems.

In a witty and important documentary about toilets in Mumbai, film-maker Paromita Vohra explores the "gendering" of public toilet space in the city. Produced in 2006, the film's central theme is reflected in the title "Q2P." It asks a simple question: Who needs to queue to pee in Mumbai? The film reveals an underlying story about gender and exclusion, touching on a variety of issues affecting women of all classes and ages when it comes to accessing toilets in the city. Urban planners often omit public toilets from their plans, and many privately run public toilets charge more for women than for men.

Celebrating World Toilet Day in Australia. Source: The Christian Science Monitor

In considering what creates a just city, safe access to sanitation and toilets seems the most obvious first step in guaranteeing the dignity of all citizens. Paromita Vohra rightly observes that the same silence that surrounds discussions of inequality surrounds her questions about toilets. Solving this problem is not an issue of technological and scientific innovation, but of securing the political support of those who prefer to ignore poverty.

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  1. Did you know that the world will meet the MDG water target, but won't meet the sanitation target on time?
    Sanitation is a huge issue, but most water and sanitation projects and programmes push sanitation into the background. The truth is that in most cases communities prefer water to be addressed first, particularly when women specific needs are not prioritized. Water is needed to flush toilets, but both issues should be addressed simultaneously with an integrated approach. And dry toilets don't need much water to function anyway.
    While water provision requires specialized engineers, sanitation is technically simple and deficiencies can be sorted out with adequate social-related activities. Is professionals' obsession with infrastructure what pushes sanitation into the background?

  2. This article is promoting World Toilet Day, an event to bring awareness to the global issue of sanitation. But if we think about what access to sanitation and clean water really represents, World Toilet Day is protesting against a lot more than just health issues. Although agreed upon as a basic human right by the United Nations, there is no requirement for urban planners or city governments to provide public restrooms. If the United Nations granted this right but doesn’t do anything to uphold it, then the right means nothing in practice. We only have rights to the extent that some authority recognizes them and backs them up. Not only is there no jurisdiction to uphold this basic human right of sanitation, but also, urban planners are specifically denying people this right. Urban planners are using architecture as a way to decrease the presence of the homeless. Included in these building plans is the lack of public restrooms. It all comes down to reconfiguring public spaces to express that even though they are ‘public’, only certain people belong here. The homeless and the poor who need facilities like public restrooms are not welcome here. If the ‘public space’ does not even have a public restroom, the homeless won’t have the need to linger in these areas. Architecture is now being used as a way to exert social control and power. World Toilet Day declares that millions of people have no access to sanitary resources, but this is just part of the larger problem of social inequalities and the actions being taken to actually increase these injustices. In many cities, the denial of public toilets and clean water is an action taken to sweep the homeless under the rug. Let World Toilet Day bring awareness to these social injustices and to the issue of upholding our human rights. The first step towards change is awareness and recognition.


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