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World Toilet Day: flushing away inequality

Separate toilets at Koka Negewo School in Ethiopia give girls privacy and dignity
Separate toilets at Koka Negewo School in Ethiopia give girls privacy and dignity

Mention the fact that it’s World Toilet Day today, and it’s quite likely you’ll hear an embarrassed snigger in response. It’s not hard to see why. If you live in a country like the UK, you probably take loos entirely for granted. They’re part of everyday life, but not the sort of thing you ever really talk about because… well… it’s just not polite to, is it? The idea of an annual awareness day in aid of the humble lavatory sounds a little absurd.

But just stop for a second to imagine what life would be like if you didn’t have access to adequate toilet facilities. Imagine what it would be like for a child who has to defecate outside. Imagine the danger it would pose to their health – the constant risk of contracting killer diseases like cholera, diarrhoea or typhoid. Imagine what it would be like for a teenage girl who has to miss school every time it’s her period, because her school can’t provide the privacy and hygiene she needs. Or how it would feel to be a young woman who risks being assaulted when she ventures outside to go to the toilet after dark. Still sniggering?

Focusing on equality and dignity

For a significant proportion of the world’s population, this is what life is like. Over 2.5 billion people don’t have access to what’s known as ‘improved sanitation facilities’ (where excreta are hygienically separated from human contact). An incredible 1 billion people still have to defecate in the open. That’s why World Toilet Day matters.

This year, the day’s theme is equality and dignity. Access to improved sanitation leads to a reduction in assaults on women and girls, who often wait until night falls because they lack access to a toilet that offers privacy – and then must risk rape and abuse, just to perform the most natural of functions.

Inadequate toilet facilities can also act as a barrier to girls getting a proper education – and this is something our Community School Partnership Programme has been helping to address.

“The girls don’t mingle with the boys when they go to the toilet,” says Dereje Worku, school director at the Koka Negewo School in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. “And during their period, many girls won’t come to school at all because they can’t use the same latrines as the boys.”

We helped the school install single-sex toilets, providing girls with private, hygienic facilities. The move has had an impact. “Now we have more girls enrolled in the school than ever before,” says Worku. “They get better grades than the boys and have better facilities than before. Getting separate latrines for boys and girls means the girls can use the latrines freely.”

We might not give toilets a second thought, but for the schoolgirls at Koka Negewo, they’re an important step towards equality of opportunity. It’s definitely something to ponder, the next time you flush.

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