Here’s why investing in safe sanitation matters for women’s empowerment

Safe sanitation and hygiene facilities for the public are prerequisites for the development of any country. Given our cultural and socio-economic conditions, these facilities are even more important for the empowerment of women and girls. The availability of toilets in public spaces, institutions and homes is essential for women. Lack of access to toilets compromises women’s safety and dignity while negatively impacting their education and employment opportunities. Building toilets that meet the needs of women, especially those in rural areas, is an integral part of empowering women.

In India, collecting water for cooking and cleaning is traditionally seen as the responsibility of women. This means that when there is a water shortage, girls are the first to be taken out of school to help their mothers and other older women fetch water from distant places. Children, especially girls, are often deprived of classroom learning in schools that lack toilets. Due to lack of access to safe sanitation facilities, women are often forced to spend time looking for a safe place to defecate or urinate in the open. Teenage girls are particularly reluctant to use dirty or lacking privacy in school toilets, especially when they are on their period. This affects their school attendance and often causes them to drop out. Students also miss school due to illnesses resulting from poor sanitation and hygiene.

The lack of private toilets at work is also a major safety issue for women, especially in urban areas. Women are often vulnerable to harassment or violence when using shared public toilets. Consequently, women end up waiting until it is dark outside to relieve themselves. In unlit fields and open spaces, the risk of aggression increases at night. By delaying the urge to defecate or urinate as well as reducing water and food intake to delay the urge to expel waste, women run the risk of many health problems, including infections of the urinary tract.

Government flagship programs like Jal Jeevan Mission and Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen) have made significant contributions to improving the lives and empowering women and girls. Both programs have ensured greater participation of women in decision-making regarding water and sanitation practices. As part of the Jal Jeevan mission, each village water and sanitation committee must have at least 50% women. Women have already successfully taken on the management responsibilities of village water supply systems. They have been trained to carry out water quality tests in villages and to operate pumping stations. The Jal Jeevan mission has also spared the women the arduous efforts of fetching water from distant water sources. Under SBM (Grameen), women have played an important role in building toilets and maintaining safe sanitation standards, which has created new employment opportunities for many. Access to household toilets has also spared women many health risks. Pink toilets, another SBM (Grameen) initiative, also addressed women’s menstrual hygiene needs.

With better access to water, safe sanitation and hygiene, we as a society have a better chance of securing gender inequalities in education and employment. Equal access to toilets for women will minimize their health risks, and the availability of water could save them time, which can open up more productive avenues.

Mission Swachhta Aur Paani, a News 18 and Harpic India initiative, advocates the availability and use of clean water and safe sanitation for all. Let us all come together for the Swachhta Aur Paani- Mil Kar Lein Ye Zimmedari Mission, to ensure sustainable and inclusive sanitation. On the occasion of World Toilet Day on November 19, a major Telethon will bring together government officials, celebrities, artists, changemakers, policy experts and youth icons to celebrate the cause. To join the Telethon, log on to: Swachta Aur Paani Mission

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Mara R. Wilmoth