By Najma Sadeque
If you are reading this, you are middle-class at some rung or the other. All middle-class people have toilets; nay, they have very nice, pastel-coloured, tiled bathrooms with running hot and cold water. These spell cleanliness, comfort, civilization. Often the bathrooms look better than the rest of the house.
Now imagine living life, not just sans fancy bathroom, but without even an old-fashioned toilet that doesn’t even flush. For both survival and sanitation, water is needed, so the two always have to be considered inseparably together. Very obviously, water and sanitation should be the topmost development priorities for government. It is – but only for Islamabad and the middle-class of all other urban areas. Class attitudes are clearly at work here.
World Toilet Day was proclaimed on 19th November, 12 years ago. But it wasn’t ever observed anywhere in Pakistan, not even by women’s organisations for which it should be among the top priorities.
Why are we talking about an apparently taboo subject? It would seem that physical violence inflicted by men is the only form of violence that women suffer. It isn’t. There’s another kind that is as bad or worse, especially because they have to endure such an ongoing violence on a daily basis. And women and girls suffer the worst of both.
Should toilets be taboo?
So why isn’t it talked about? Because the kind of personal violence involved is a subject most are too embarrassed, if not ashamed, to raise in ‘polite company’ or public debate, especially among politicians and government officials. It’s the silence over the lack of toilets – for more than half the population.
The reticence isn’t simply among officialdom of South Asia and other countries. It took the male-dominated United Nations more than 62 years to proclaim water and sanitation a basic human right. Of the 192 member countries, the resolution passed in 2010 was surprisingly not unanimous. 122 countries voted for it but 41 abstained – which sort of amounted to a negative vote.
The shocking fact is that those that abstained were mainly industrialised countries, including the USA, Britain, Australia, Austria, Canada, Greece, Sweden, Japan, Israel, South Korea, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland. Did they know that during the Iraq war, some American women soldiers fell seriously ill and died as a consequence of avoiding going to the toilets at night, for fear of attack by the male soldiers? The same kind of fear that grips our women and girls forced to go out to the fields at night.
In other words, toilets not only have to be hygienic, they have to be safely located too – within or in immediate proximity of the house. It makes one pause and wonder what governments really think about women who have no say in their lives. A few South countries, mainly from Africa, also abstained from voting in allegiance to the industrialised countries.
It’s the boys that are coy
And no wonder. Male biological plumbing has been so constructed that they can relieve themselves with relative ease anywhere and everywhere without catching anything nasty. Consequently, our bigger neighbouring country found that there tended to be more cell-phones than toilets, most mobiles naturally owned by men. It seems to be the same case here.
But women are designed differently, in some ways very inconveniently from puberty onwards, and small children are highly vulnerable, which is why they are chronically sick and weakened by water-borne disease, making the death rate among children so high. In some places, the only toilets for entire communities are the ones built by NGOs or philanthropists.
It is hard to imagine that these two basic human rights – access to water and sanitation – could be denied to people to a third of the world. But our own decision-makers are even more to blame. Rights, like charity, begin at home.
But health requirements and risk of disease are not the only reasons calling for the right to a decent toilet to be written into the constitution. It has to do as much with human dignity and the need for privacy. When one’s elected political representative cannot or will not envisage this without being told, he or she is not cost-effective to vote for. When senior government servants, presidents and ministers can have free, classy bathrooms built with taxpayer money, why shouldn’t citizens have at least simple, functioning toilets in their homes?
What confounds most is that our religious clerics, who are so particular about the utmost cleanliness and ablutions before prayer, don’t feel concerned enough to address the difficulties women face in meeting these standards, by having the men of their flock taking action.
“No toilet, no bride”
A ‘neighbour’, the Union Rural Development Minister, Jairam Ramesh, has the right idea. He created quite a hullabaloo recently when he said that there were more temples than toilets in India. He then advised women in general not to marry into families that didn’t have toilets in their homes. Instead of just consulting the astrologers for an auspicious date to get married on, he said, they should first check out whether there was a proper toilet in the prospective future home. In fact, the Haryana government had already coined the slogan: “No toilet, no bride”. It would be worthwhile for our NGOs to take a cue from him, since our government is unlikely to.
The economical, sealed latrine which can collect waste for a year – found even in the rural areas of America where there isn’t another house for miles around – then closed up for another year during which time the waste converts safely into odourless soil, is actually rich fertilizer. The Baldia Project of Dr. Qurutal Ain Bakhteari, demonstrated its healthy practicality and got people to adopt it decades ago. The Orangi Pilot Project, started by the late Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan, continues doggedly with it where applicable.
The government only needs to make toilets compulsory for every family, but also compulsorily extending easy, interest-free credit – which should also be a right since all resources ultimately belong to the people – to construct it. In fact, home building should start with the toilet.
What does it say of a country where there are fewer toilets than cell-phones? As in Pakistan, where over half the households have cell-phones, but less than half have toilets. In Pakistan, most government schools don’t have toilets either, or they are clogged up and don’t work. Which is why girls tend to stop going to school when they reach puberty. That fear of rape prevents many women and girls to venture out into the fields at night, with serious health consequences. And toilets in most factories, offices and government offices are not fit to go to either – except those reserved exclusively for senior-most personnel.
A decent toilet means less-stressed women and girls, thereby healthier and more productive. And when they don’t have to fret about the next unavoidable trips, they are able to start thinking of other priorities in life, such as better food and shelter, health services, recreation, dreams.
Another kind of charity
If anyone honestly wants to be charitable towards a poor family, say, towards the domestic help at home, the nicest thing one can do is to first check out whether she or he has a toilet and a water connection where they live; and if not, then to provide either or both. It would benefit the entire family, enabling them to live cleaner, healthier, lives, performing better and experiencing a new-found self-respect and confidence about themselves and their future.
It has been suggested that our rulers and local political representatives deserve to be invited to all-day ‘melas’ and vegetarian feasts (all they can afford) by underserved villages, without making any arrangements for toilets whatsoever, except what locals use, so they can learn from personal experience. But it has also been pointed out that they would simply flee in their Pajeros to the nearest government guest-house to answer the call of Nature.
Toilets for development
The current advice for development trainers is to go directly to villages and engage directly with the villagers on the importance of proper sanitation. And to help or teach them to construct appropriate toilets on both supported and self-help basis. People have done it and are doing it all over the world. Also urgently needed is a better understanding of ecology to be incorporated into school and college curricula – to comprehend that human waste is not eternally waste, but simply a stage in a continuous cycle. That it returns to its original constituents as soil and nutrient-rich natural fertilizer. That it is just a matter of proper management for which many locally-appropriate technologies exist that do not need World Bank/IMF loans or Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to cripple us with.
At least one and a half billion persons have to use the outdoors as their toilet, and of all the social targets, sanitation figures almost nowhere. It is shameful that more than half our brethren are victims.
So instead of waiting for some government – we have waited 65 years already with no luck – an additional angle is called for by NGOs, especially women’s NGOs. To act on the violence inflicted on the bodies of women and children from lack of toilets and water, as much as on income-generation skills and leadership trainings. And to offer their votes in exchange for a toilet for every home. No matter what people do, they still have to go to the bathroom.
Published in You! The News on December 4, 2012