Women & Toilets: Unique Challenges Make for a More Dangerous Problem

Open defecation is very literally the practice of defecating out in the open.

It should be rare.   

It is not.

Almost 1 billion people today practice open defecation. The obvious impacts include contaminated water sources, potentially lethal diarrhea in children, and infection risks for pregnant women and newborns during delivery.

The impact of the lack of proper toilets goes beyond basic hygiene. Absent or ill-suited toilets create a problem that leads to horrid living conditions, immense amounts of wasted time trying to access subpar alternatives, and safety concerns. In the case of women in the most vulnerable of communities, it is an emotionally draining life sentence.


Living in Fear

Women and girls spend 97 billion hours a year trying to find a place to safely defecate. Publically shared toilets are usually far and dirty. When some close at night, options become limited. Simply walking to a facility or a private space can be incredibly dangerous. The fear of rape, sexual assault, violence or harassment is common with women and young girls living in these communities.

At this year’s World Water Week, The Stockholm International Water Institute reminded of the continuous and deep-seated emotional strain sanitation weaknesses can have on females. It can be limiting, ostracizing, and stress-inducing. At best, it still creates a hole where women can no longer contribute. Women are widely considered in these communities to be the caregivers. They use otherwise productive time to look after sick children and family members, made more common due to the poor conditions. Gender norms and domestic roles play an important part in their suppressed quality of life.


The Challenge of Menstruation

The stigma of menstruation alone can challenge how healthy and productive a woman can be. Being ‘impure,’ without the tools to manage their periods, they become home-bound. Girls miss school and daily activities. They can no longer access shared public facilities. They can no longer use the public toilets. They arguably need more water to clean, and have even less access to it.


Labor and the Strain on Antibiotics

In birth, unsanitary conditions mean the delivery room is open to dangerous pathogens. 15% of maternal deaths and large numbers of babies dying from sepsis result from the infection risk. When surgical instruments are washed in the same sink waste is dumped into, the only readily available protection against deadly infection is antibiotics. Antibiotics are themselves precious, and the overuse opens the door to drug-resistant infection.


A Straightforward Solution

With every stage of life, women are dramatically hindered by a lack of private, dignified, accessible toilets. Menstruation, pregnancy, and the physical demands of old age bring very different needs that are very specific to women.

This can change.

Access to a clean, cheap, accessible toilet means women can be healthier. Access to the privacy a proper toilet can offer means women can have dignity. Access to a system that is close by, free from the potential for gender-based harassment, means women can be safe.