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Why You Should Give A Crap: A Tale Of Two Toilets

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Oxfam is currently providing water and sanitation support in Nepal, following the earthquake. Anu Shrestra age 24 (not pictured) lives with her mother, daughter, husband and 15 other people in a tarpaulin shelter amongst potato fields in Sankhu, Nepal. She told us: "We are really struggling living here. I don't feel safe going to the toilet at night and the children are scared when the wind blows against the tarpaulin. It's cold and when it rains it's awful." Photo credit: Kieran Doherty/ Oxfam

written by Melanie Gallant, Oxfam Canada Media Officer, and Victoria Hopkins, Oxfam Canada Humanitarian Officer

Does this sound familiar: You rush to use the ladies room during the intermission, thinking you will beat the crowd, only to find that an incredibly long lineup has already formed outside the door?

It's frustrating, but most of the time the only thing we can really complain about is the absence of a lineup in front of the men's room. In Canada, chances are the bathroom will be clean, with private stalls and soap and water to wash your hands. Some fancier places might even have little wall dispensers selling tampons, menstrual pads, and other hygiene supplies.

Sadly, that is not the case for millions of women and girls living in the developing world.

In rural Sierra Leone for example, a country where more people have access to a cell phone than a working toilet, girls live in fear of going to school while menstruating. They are faced with bleeding through their clothes or using a dirty toilet with no privacy, often located behind the school.

The girls who choose to use the toilet will most likely not have soap or water to wash their hands. Nor will they have anywhere to throw out their menstrual pads or cloths. Many will choose to stay home, missing school days (if they are lucky enough to go to school) and falling behind on their education (if they are lucky enough to have access to an education), increasing their risk of early marriage of teenage pregnancy.

Everyone deserves access to toilets and proper sanitation -- that's a basic human right.

In urban slum areas, a girl might have to use the same dirty public toilet as hundreds of other people before going to school in the morning, with nothing but newspaper or old rags to clean herself.

And imagine for a moment that you were displaced because war broke out in your hometown, finding yourself in a refugee camp. You're a 15-year-old girl and you've been menstruating for days. Culturally, it's not appropriate for you to expose and relieve yourself in public, or wash your sanitary cloths and undergarments. To do this you need to hide yourself and find privacy on the outskirts of the camp, where sexual violence is a very real danger and you risk being attacked.

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Photo: Oxfam International

November 19th is World Toilet Day, a United Nations day to mark the importance of clean water and safe sanitation.

The global statistics are staggering: 2.4 billion people do not have access to a toilet or latrine. About a billion of them have to defecate in the open, which often leads to serious public health problems. And more than half of the schools in the developing world lack private toilets.

Everyone deserves access to toilets and proper sanitation -- that's a basic human right. Toilets and proper sanitation are key in preventing diseases like cholera, and in fighting poverty and inequality. But as we know, it is often women and girls who are impacted the most -- including their health, safety, education and future economic prospects.

One in three women worldwide risk shame, disease, harassment and even attack because they have nowhere safe to go to the toilet. Women and girls living without any toilets spend 97 billion hours each year finding a place to go.

The good news is that improving access to adequate sanitation and hygiene for the billions without -- including women and girls -- is ambitious, but it's not a pipe dream.

Since 1990, over 2 billion people have gained access to toilets and other improved sanitation facilities. There is now an international how-to manual for emergency aid workers that lays out the issues and practical steps they must take to ensure women's sexual and reproductive health and rights, including menstrual health and sanitation -- an important part of preventing gender based violence in emergencies.

We're doing it, but we're not quite there.

At Oxfam, World Toilet Day is an opportunity to highlight these issues, but also the solutions and resources we need to make sure that the human right to sanitation becomes a reality. And that more people give a crap.

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If you want to fight for the rights of women and girls, start thinking about toilets. Find out how you can make a difference today, at oxfamunwrapped.ca

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