Busting for a world which is flush with clean dunnies
Feminism has become a big issue for Australians. Recently Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave a blistering speech on misogyny, which then went viral around the world. In the U.S Presidential election there were debates about abortion and rape.
Beyond Australia and the USA, did you know that something like one in three women in the developing world do not have access to a toilet? That is approximately 1.25 billion women and girls who lack access to safe sanitation leaving them exposed to the threat of violence.
I see many disturbing things related to extreme poverty in my job. One of these is that in Delhi, girls under the age of 10 have been raped while walking to a public toilet.
Richard Marles is Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and he was in India earlier this month, where he saw where our aid money is being spent while visiting an AusAID funded WaterAid project. He visited slums in Delhi where people are forced to defecate in the open, because they lack a toilet nearby.
Richard wrote about his experience on The Punch He wrote: ‘The hygiene implications of open defecation are obvious. Diarrhoeal disease is rampant. It is a major cause of death.”
But disease is not the biggest issue. Open defecation also means the fundamental loss of human dignity. For what is naturally an intensely private act, is simply not.
Adjoining this particular slum is a tree-filled bushland area. For most women in the community, their bodily urge is met by hanging on until the very middle of the night and then venturing into the dark to seek relief, despite the added risk of possible violent assault.’
One of the biggest untold tragedies in our world is the simple fact that 2.5 billion people still lack safe sanitation; somewhere to go to the toilet, wash their hands and get clean water. To tackle this sanitation crisis the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council recognised the Human Right to Water and Sanitation in 2010.
However, it is shameful that an astonishing 526 million women and girls still go to the toilet out in the open; imagine the indignity and fear for a woman going to the toilet, particularly during her menstruation, in public; often in full view of men and teenage boys with dark thoughts on their minds. This forces hundreds of millions of women and girls to wait until after dark or walk long distances just to go to the toilet, in the bush, where there isn’t one.
This problem and its solution is so clear, it is no surprise that politicians of all parties (and the independents) are looking at ways for Australia to better target our aid money, to fix it.
The solution is to work with women to improve the sanitary conditions in their community. Sanitation cuts the disease burden for a community, improves education because children are sick less often and miss less school, reduces health bills, and increases productivity.
Women are the key
Once women are fully informed and included in decision-making, they agitate for change. Local aid groups, the government and donor countries such as Australia can collaborate with these empowered groups and help build the facilities that are required.
Needless to say, men also benefit vastly when sanitation is improved. However, the point of distinction between the sexes is not that men do not suffer from unsafe, unsanitary conditions; it is women that bear a disproportionate burden, lack of dignity and fear of violence.
In cost-benefit terms, these investments in women; in toilets and taps and; in education are the most beneficial way to spend our aid dollar.
Consider the benefits in two of our own neighbouring countries. Using the available data, WaterAid estimates that in Papua New Guinea over 1.8 million women in PNG lack safe sanitation (55% of women) and this costs them an estimated 100 million hours per year, walking around to find somewhere safe and discrete to defecate.
Likewise, in Timor-Leste, 53% of women (over 295,000) lack proper, safe sanitation. As many as 35% of women do not even have an inadequate toilet to use and are forced to practice open defecation (the world average is 15%).
What Australia can do
All parties agree that sanitation is a cost-effective way to increase the impact of our aid spending. This can be pursued both at the national level, by fixing our aid priorities and through the international community.
I recognise that AusAID is doing a lot in terms of providing access to sanitation and reducing the levels of violence against women. However, currently, the Australian Government directs less than 1% of aid to sanitation. WaterAid is calling for a more fair share. Sanitation and water allocations within the aid budget need to be about $500 million per year with at least half of that earmarked for sanitation.
At the global level, Australia has a seat on the UN Security Council, which is the highest decision making forum in the family of nations. This is a good time for us to publically state our support for the Right to Water and Sanitation, as other Security Council states United Kingdom, China, and France have done in recent years.
Australian politicians are hearing the message, from their communities and from the experts. Local meetings have been held in seats held by all sides of politics, such as New England (Tony Windsor, Independent), the electoral bell-weather seat of Eden-Monaro (Mike Kelly, ALP) and Melbourne’s well-heeled Kooyong (Josh Frydenburg, Liberal). Some 15,000 people have been engaged through WaterAid’s Toilet Tour.
On World Toilet Day the message is that I want Australia to pledge to do all it can so that women no longer feel shame and fear risk of violence for the sake of access to a safe and private toilet.
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