Why your future becomes brilliant if you have a toilet

In Madagascar, toilets can change the entire course of a woman's life, from time to cook to freedom from fear of rape and attack.

New Statesman
Madeleine with her son. Image: Water Aid/Anna Kari

"Your future becomes brilliant if you have a toilet."

For many, the toilet is a necessary but everyday item that we take for granted.  For people like Madeleine Razafindramasy from Madagascar, it’s a treasured new life-saving item that has transformed her life.

Madeleine used to walk for 6km to go to the toilet in the open: “It was threatening and dirty. It was frightening too, so most of the time we went with friends. There are men who are not really nice. When they see lonely woman there they rape them or something like that. I know something like that already happened. I don’t want my daughter to go to that place. I’m teaching her to always use the toilet instead.”

Today is World Toilet Day, which has been marked since 2001 to raise awareness of the 2.5 billion people living without somewhere safe to go to the toilet. This year, for the first time, it is an official UN-recognised day, highlighting the huge role access to sanitation plays in reducing poverty and the need for greater collective action.

At WaterAid, we believe that ending the global sanitation crisis is one of the most urgent developmental challenges of the 21st century. It is a particularly pressing issue for women, with sanitation having a profound impact throughout their lives, as we show in our new report We Can’t Wait, which we are publishing on World Toilet Day in partnership with Unilever and the UN Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council.

Across the world, 526 million women have no choice but to go to the toilet out in the open. Women and girls living without any toilets spend 97 billion hours each year finding a place to go. Their search for a private place to go makes them more vulnerable to the risk of shame, disease, harassment and violence. 

Living without a toilet has a detrimental effect on education, with diarrhoeal diseases forcing children to miss lessons and many girls dropping out of school altogether when they reach puberty if there is nowhere private for them to go to the toilet.

Similarly, a lack of facilities in the workplace can have an impact on absenteeism, affecting livelihoods, productivity levels and ultimately the economy. Dirty water and inadequate sanitation cost sub-Saharan Africa around 5% of its gross domestic product every year.

The human cost is even starker – 2,000 children under the age of five die every single day because of diarrhoeal diseases caused by drinking dirty water and having nowhere safe to go to the toilet.

Adequate sanitation and hygiene improves birth survival rates, with research showing that hand washing by birth attendants and mothers can increase newborn survival rates by up to 44 per cent.

Madeleine said: “The change in my life since I have the toilet here is that I can use the time I spent going to that place to do something else. I’m in charge of the household and have two children. Before, when my children needed the toilet I had to take them all the way to that place so I didn’t have the time for example to cook and clean. Now I have the time to prepare food and my mind is at ease.”

At the turn of the millennium, world leaders promised to halve the proportion of people living without access to a basic toilet by 2015. At current rates of progress, around half a billion people will have to wait another decade before they get this basic service they were promised. For the other 2 billion people in the world’s poorest communities, the wait will go on even longer.

It doesn’t have to be this way. At WaterAid, we believe that with strong commitments and concrete actions, it is possible to ensure that by 2030 everyone, everywhere has somewhere safe to go to the toilet and has access to clean drinking water. Tackling this requires a collaborative approach between governments, civil society and business – mutual action and mutual accountability. We can and should be doing better; as Madeleine’s story shows, toilets can transform lives.

Barbara Frost is the Chief Executive for WaterAid