Toilet Talk

Believe it or not, a toilet can transform lives, providing safety for women and even playing a key role in girls' educations.

September 27, 2019

10:58 am

Let’s talk about toilets.

We’re all past the point of snickering at the mention of these critical waste receptacles, and most of us are cognizant of the obvious fact that they are essential for myriad sanitation and health issues.

But the impact of toilets is much greater than the flushing away of human waste. Toilets can provide shelter and safety for women from sexual violence by eliminating open defecation, a scenario that leaves women and girls vulnerable to attacks. Toilets, it might surprise some to know, are also a key component to girls’ education: studies have shown that young women who have begun menstruating and who don’t have access to a toilet and an area to wash up are unwilling to even come to school. A World Bank report noted that 113 million adolescent girls in India were at risk of dropping out of school once they started menstruating.

These issues were front and center at an event staged yesterday at New York’s Tavern on the Green, “Are We Washing Our Hands of Girls’ Future? Toilets Will Transform the World,” held as part of both UN Week and Climate Week NYC. [Disclosure: the moderator for the event was Earth’s Call’s Lance Gould, who was not paid for his role. Some of his remarks have been incorporated into this blog.]

The event examined the issues of water, sanitation, education, health, and gender equality from a variety of perspectives, all seen through the prism of the 2030 Agenda and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, aka the SDGs. The topics covered, in fact, were each tied to a specific SDG, particularly Health, SDG3; Education, SDG4; Gender Equality, SDG5; and of course Clean Water and Sanitation, SDG6.

And let’s not forget SDG17, Partnerships for the Goals, which in the estimation of some is recognition by the UN that the public sector will never be able to pay the trillions necessary to achieve the other 16 goals, and is thus an explicit invitation to the private sector to get more involved. And that’s why it was so encouraging to see that yesterday’s event was hosted in partnership by the nonprofits Water.org and Global Citizen with British consumer-goods giant RB (Reckitt Benckiser), meaning that the event itself was a manifestation of SDG17.

A keynote by the honorable Babajide Sanwo-Olu, Governor of the Nigerian state of Lagos, pointed out some of the challenges that many developing nations face. The city of Lagos, he noted, has a population of 22 million, which occupies just 1% of the size of the nation, indicative of the population-density issues, for which there are no easy answers regarding sanitation management. “A clean toilet is not just a toilet,” he said. “It is one of the building blocks of a better tomorrow.”

Two subsequent panels tackled the problems from two different perspectives. The first, “Turning on the Tap: Innovative Approaches to Financing for SDG6,” looked at disruptive ways to help bridge the capital gap and direct more money to where it’s needed, focusing on market-based approaches to water and sanitation. Water.org co-founder Gary White shared some innovative thinking around financing, including the idea of loans — water credits (small loans) and water equity (larger, scaled loans) — to quickly get water where it is most needed. Also giving insights on this panel were the World Bank’s Karin Krchnak, Program Manager of the Water Resources Group 2030, and Solape Hammond, CEO and co-founder of Impact Hub Lagos, both of whom addressed the hidden costs to economies that lack access to improved water and sanitation, noting how a lack of toilets can affect both GDP growth and youth and employment.

The second panel, “Flooding the Zone: Championing Women as the Voices for Change,” had more of boots-on-the-ground perspective from women connected to communities on the front lines of these issues, the ones whose opportunities to develop further are hamstrung by a lack of toilets. Nigerian artist/activists Falana and DJ Cuppy spoke to the power of youthful voices, such as the ones who led the 4 million-strong climate strike one week ago. Trisha Shetty, founder of SheSays India, passionately noted that a question asking for granular examples of how toilets can benefit girls was difficult to answer, in that having toilets was a human right, and how can one sensibly articulate what it’s like to receive what they should already have. Jenifer Colpas, co-founder of Tierra Grata — a social enterprise that sets out to address the need for basic energy, water, and sanitation services in her native Colombia — focuses on training women in good water and sanitation practices and to install low-cost bathrooms with ecological toilets, which save water and generate natural fertilizer.

A second keynote was delivered by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who noted that there are three key words that will help us successfully execute what we collectively need to get done to achieve SDG 6: “Finance, finance, finance.” Rudd saw hope in meeting with world leaders in New York this week as part of UN Week, such as with Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who earlier this year launched the “Clean Nigeria Campaign,” which hopes to see Nigeria as open-defecation-free by 2025.

The event concluded with some calls to action by the three sponsor organizations, including a blue wristband to raise awareness of the issues facing young girls globally. The least you can do is, next time you’re on the toilet, remember those that do not have access to one.

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