A stink over sanitation
FAITH IN ACTION
The headline in Sunday's Metro section of a leading Bangladesh newspaper, the independent, caught my eye: "Washroom woes: for a city of 14 million, Dhaka has only 100 public toilets - and most of them raise a stink." The story highlights one of the least talked about challenges of poverty: horrible sanitation. Both the problem and talking about it matter, because sanitation and health are tightly linked. Even more, it takes little imagination to appreciate that a meaningful understanding of human dignity can't ignore the need for safe and private access to a toilet.
Kamla Chowdhry, a dear friend who died five years ago, argued passionately that sanitation was a spiritual issue. She wanted to see aggressive action to put sanitation, especially for women, far higher on global agendas. She raged that an overblown sense of propriety relegates toilets to the realm of jokes and oblique references. Women in many parts of the world risk their lives because they wait until dark to look for a private place to relieve themselves. Many are brutalized and raped as a result. But it is the assault on day-to-day respect and common decency that also should draw our attention to the challenge.
Sanitation has many passionate advocates. There's even a "World Toilet Day" dedicated to putting a spotlight on the problem. There's a Sanilexicon to help with the vocabulary. The year 2008 was the International Year of Sanitation. But in the rough estimates that are sadly the stuff of measuring the world's misery 2.6 billion people still have no access to a decent, clean and private toilet, and some 1.2 billion have nothing, meaning they defecate and urinate outdoors. Perhaps 5000 children a day die because of diarrhea-linked diseases, which could be avoided with decent sanitation. The current cholera epidemic in Haiti spread because of poor sanitation.
And there are solutions. Designers have come up with a wide range of low cost options for latrines in different settings. There are plenty of success stories of transformation aided by a new toilet. Giving priority to decent toilets in schools makes eminent sense because it keeps children safer from disease and also helps to increase the enrollment of girls. Parents are understandably more willing to send a daughter to school if they are confident she will not be ambushed as she sneaks outdoors to go to the bathroom. But it takes political commitment, money, and a willingness to keep a topic many would prefer not to talk about at the center of the agenda. Jack Sim, a social entrepreneur from Singapore, founded the World Toilet Organization and has become a leading voice for determined action to bring toilets to all. His motto? "We want to make toilets sexy."
And there, as in many other areas, the religious leaders who are trusted by communities can lead in breaking through taboos of communication and in dispelling myths. Says Sim: "Religion is a very good tool, because most religions say that when you come to God, you must come clean. We must try and leverage on this."
Coming back to Bangladesh and South Asia, this part of the world is an epicenter of sanitation problems. Three quarters of people living in rural areas lack proper sanitation. And, as Dhaka's newspaper article makes dramatically clear, there is a very obvious sanitation crisis in the region's huge cities. It cites Dr. Sarwar Jahan, head of urban and regional planning, as saying that a megacity needs five public toilets for each square kilometer, but Dhaka, with 360 square kilometers and at least 14 million people, has only 100, most of them unusable. Especially sad is that public toilets designed for women go unused because of terrible planning, for example their placement in places women rarely go.
There's a biannual regional conference on sanitation in South Asia, highlighting the link between sanitation and quality of life. The problem is known, as are the solutions. Yet it seems to defy all the social entrepreneurs who are determined to break through the barriers of taboos and indifference to the needs of poor communities. They need spiritual voices and leaders, with the angry passion of people like Kamla Chowdhry, to press for urgent action. It's going to take more than a World Toilet Day to move on this one.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
By Katherine Marshall |
January 10, 2011; 12:48 AM ET
Faith in Action
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