How can access to a toilet change a person’s life?
Just imagine that you are 14, you recently began menstruating, and your body is beginning to change. How you, and others around you, deal with this can have a critical impact not only on your self-esteem but on your health, social and economic outcomes.
In the developing world, the topic of sanitation, menstruation and hygiene are often taboo subjects. It is kind of like “out of sight, out of mind”. Traditionally in many cultures these topics are never spoken about, or if they are, it must come from someone the same gender as you.
Now, come back to being that 14 year old girl, and now imagine you are standing in a line to use one of the two unisex toilets at your school for 2000 students. Imagine standing with boys either side of you, ridiculing and teasing you, because they know you are taking your school bag into the toilet to change your sanitary pad. Imagine them jostling, and perhaps even pushing you, to make you feel small and embarrassed.
Once you actually make it into the toilet, you have to rush, not only because there is a huge line of people still waiting to use the toilet in the brief morning break between classes, but because there is so little time now before your next class begins.
Now imagine it is your first time accessing a toilet since you travelled the 8km by bicycle to school today. So first you must relieve yourself of urine, (with a bladder at bursting point, that does not take long!), and then you have to find a clean space to change your sanitary pad in a toilet that few people care enough about to keep clean. After you finish you need to wash your hands, but often there is no water and almost always no soap, in these toilets. Then you must find a way to discreetly dispose of your used sanitary items, which usually means putting them into a plastic bag and placing them back into your school bag, to take home to burn on your refuse pile at your house. None of this sits well with your concern for the local environment that is already polluted by plastic waste and pollution from fires.
After you leave the toilet you are again laughed at, and have jokes and dirty words aimed at you, simply because you utilised the toilet space to attend to your personal hygiene needs. You rush back to your classroom, running late and missing the first few minutes of your Science lesson. Your face is flushed, and you are embarrassed by what this simple task has meant to you today.
The next day, your menstrual flow is very heavy. Too heavy for you to safely cycle to school and sit through all of your classes without an accident. And you know once you are at school there will be ridiculing, finger pointing and gossip about you, as they point out the staining on your underwear and school uniform. Today you choose to stay at home, and maybe tomorrow you will as well….. It is easier this way.
Image 1: Non-functional toilet block shared amongst 800 students at a local school, Cambodia
This story is not just a story. This story is reality for millions of children all over the world who do not have access to clean water or toilets at school. In the first Global Assessment of Water and Sanitation carried out by the World Health Organization and Unicef in 2018 it showed that 620 million children do not have decent toilets at school and around 900 million cannot wash their hands properly. It is estimated that almost 1 in 3 schools around the world have no clean water or toilets and less than 50% do not provide soap for children. Not having access to adequate toilets or sanitation stations is a huge obstacle for all children attending school because they have no place to appropriately go to the toilet.
For young women, this problem is exacerbated when they do not have a single sex toilet/bathroom facility as there is nowhere to change their sanitary items and wash their hands. Studies suggest that 1 in 3 young women miss at least 5 days of school per month (during their menstrual cycle) – this quickly adds up to more than 60 days per year – a full two months off school simply because they are menstruating! Making up that much lost time is almost impossible!
Additionally, when young women and girls stay at home, they are more likely to end up working in the fields, often having to undertake heavy, manual labour that is not good for their growing and developing bodies. It also puts them at increased risk of being trafficked, or subject to sexual abuse or assault, especially if they stay at home and are not adequately supervised by their parents, who are usually out working long hours to earn enough money to feed and clothe the family.
This issue not only has a negative impact on education completion rates, but also negatively impacts on a countries economic development. When less children graduate from school, this results in fewer people being educated sufficiently to undertake more technical employment that requires higher levels of education and can hold a country back from economic growth.
It also significantly impacts on women’s social and health outcomes with lower education levels associated with poorer overall health outcomes, an earlier marrying age, being a younger age when first baby being born, increased rates of obstetric fistula’s and uterine prolapse, being more reliant on their male partners to earn an income to support their families, having less independence and limited control over how family income is spent.
Research suggests that women with a lower level of education are also more likely to have more babies due to limited understanding about their reproductive cycles. This often leads to income stress when trying to feed, clothe and educate many children in the one family, and can lead to their children being inadvertently malnourished or neglected. These children are also less likely to complete school, and the cycle continues.
At Development Together we are making a concerted effort to identify and work with partner groups who see that accessing toilets is a problem for children in their community, and want to come up with a solution to change this.
Image 2: New school toilet in a female only toilet block, Cambodia
In Cambodia we have been partnering with Empowering Cambodia and over the last two years we have assisted in the building of toilets for a rural community, complete with solar lighting and leech drains, and alongside our partners contributed to education for local villagers about the importance of sanitation and hand hygiene and drinking from filtered water.
In Vietnam we have been partnering with the Centre for Sustainable Development Studies and over the last two years we have assisted in the building of a water storage tank, water piping, and 18 water filtration systems for individual households. Alongside our partners we have contributed to education for local villagers about the importance of sanitation and hand hygiene and drinking from filtered water.
In Indonesia we have been partnering with the Bali Appropriate Technology Institute and in the last year we have contributed to the construction of an underground water storage tank and gutters to the roof of the toilet building, that will be sued to supply the toilets and hand basins with water during the dry season. Our volunteers have also contributed to education for local school children about the importance of sanitation and hand hygiene and drinking from filtered water.
In Uganda we have been partnering with Seeds of Hope Integrated Ministries Uganda for the last year and have developed a business plan for the formation of a small Sanitary Napkin Sewing Business, to help supply reusable sanitary items to local young women for a reduced rate. We also contributed to the construction of an underground water storage tank and gutters to supply water to a small not for profit piggery.
Image 3: Development Together Volunteers constructing a private toilet for a local village, Cambodia
Image 4: Development Together Volunteers constructing the foundation of a new toilet block, Cambodia
If this sounds like something you would like to get involved with then head to www.developmenttogther.com and check out our 4 or 8 week volunteer placements where you can #bethechange and #makeadifference