Today is International Women’s Day and our project proudly recognizes, and stands in solidarity with, the incredible women and girls all around the world that face a day-to-day adversity that is individual only to them.
Aside from promoting and standing for equality across the board for women, our project has also focused on creating a sanitation solution that focuses on the needs and safety of women and girls.
Intentional partnerships, like the one we have with SEWA – a women’s union in India with national reach in-country, that supports user studies through the mobilization of communities to provide input and feedback – have had a direct influence on our system design and approach. This data we collect is being implemented into our toilet system so that we can provide a space of safety for women and girls to relieve and care for themselves with dignity.
Our team is also sharing this data openly – collaborating with other institutions to help develop system designs, as well as educate on the needs for better access to proper MHM (Menstrual Hygiene Management). Many cultures around the world still don’t recognize this vital need in society, resorting to damaging and often dangerous treatment of women and girls during their monthly period. We are trying to do our part to help remedy that.
It goes without saying that toilets can’t solve every issue a woman faces daily, but they can at least make portions of their day-to-day life easier and safer.
You can find more information on International Women’s Day right here.
A SHARE / WSSCC Research Brief (January 2015) is a thoughtful piece on the social and psychological impact of inadequate sanitation on women and girls.
Among the findings shared in this Research Brief is the fact that sanitation encompasses much more than defecation in the Indian context. The Research Brief notes that
“… The act of defecation is embedded within other behaviors, including post-defecation cleaning, ritual bathing, and changing clothing; as well as menstrual management and urination.”
This observation is consistent with what RTI is learning through our user studies in Gujarat.
With our work in urban communities, we are recognizing that strategies to improve sanitation coverage in India will require us to think about how defecation practices occur in the larger behavioral context.
We are testing interface features and examining various adoption questions about how new technologies and user-centric designs can be responsive to the needs of women and girls. For example, strategies for reuse of water, perceptions of what clean water is and how it is used, are important questions for our user studies. And what if toilets are not so dark and claustrophobic feeling? In our May 2015 “alpha” prototype, we are also exploring the potential value of a larger cabin size and how this may address the demand for space for body washing, MHM and changing of clothes.
These are all elements of dignity and security for women and girls, and how we collectively can meet social and psychological needs with improved sanitation solutions.
May 28 was the first global menstrual hygiene day. Congratulations to the advocacy efforts that made this possible.
Menstrual hygiene management (MHM) needs to be an integral part of water and sanitation programming. MHM is an equity, human rights, health, and environmental issue closely linked to sanitation.
It may be a topic that many are shy to discuss, but menstruation is a biological process just like defecation and urination. Maintaining hygiene is important for women’s well-being, education access, mobility, and dignity. Globally, 52% of women are of reproductive age (26% of the total population).
As we are working now in India for user studies related to our reinvent the toilet program, we are researching possible strategies for MHM as we re-make sanitation technologies. It is important that we walk-the-talk:
- 350 million women and girls in India menstruate in a given day. A majority do not have access to toilets, safe water and hygienic MHM products.
- Limited management options limit school participation and work-days.
- 23% of girls in India drop out of school when reaching puberty. Access to toilets, pads and water are a key factor, as well as the stigma and shame.
- Unsafe MHM can lead to infections, and poor health.
- Access. Safe products often not available to the poor. Many use unsanitary material such as old rags, husks, dried leaves and grass, ash, sand or newspapers.
- Disposal. When access is available, options for safe disposal are often lacking
- Privacy required. Privacy is important during menstruation and for changing pads. Privacy is hard to find in many urban low income areas, lacking in safe sanitation options.
- A secret and shy subject. Many social norm and cultural practices bring silence, shame, embarrassment, taboos associated with menstruation, blood, and use and disposal of hygiene products.
- Restrictions. Some cultures impose restrictions on food intake, interactions with others, mobility, touch, visiting places of religious worship, and engaging in household tasks.
- Knowledge. Knowledge of reproductive health and menstrual healthy practices is lacking for both men and women
- Disposal is required. The majority (70–80%) of women in surveys from South Asia report disposing of sanitary cloth after one use.
- Safe disposal is not generally available to the urban poor. Sanitary materials are frequently disposed of in rubbish bins, open rubbish heaps, rivers, ponds, pit latrines, toilets, in the field or jungle, or by burying.
Our mothers, daughters, sisters and all women deserve better.
My recent walk through an open defecation field in an urban community in India illustrated the gender and safety dimensions of the sanitation challenge. There were no toilets, so open defecation was the only option for a community of over 200 households.
Lack of access to sanitation and other basic services creates risks to health, safety and security. Millions of women and girls living in low-income urban communities across the world are at risk due to the lack of improved sanitation facilities. Where there are toilet facilities, often they are poorly lit and isolated. Such public and communal toilets leave women and girls disproportionately affected by safety hazards whenever they choose to use them. The threat to women and girls as they turn to open defecation due to a lack of other safe sanitation options is dire, including gender-based violence, stigma, and health risk from unhygienic options and practices.
Sanitation and hygiene improvements are too often low on the list of priority investments for urban areas, and women and girls suffer more indignity due to this low prioritization. The existence of improved sanitation facilities for women and girls is one step in the right direction. Their privacy and security is partly determined by the location and the ease of access to sanitation facilities. When political will and financial resources are mustered to make urban sanitation investments, inclusive planning is required to ensure that interventions meet the mandate. Involving women in urban planning decisions for funding, planning technology and features, and siting sanitation solutions is critical to achieving the provision of facilities that are accessible and secure.
Inclusive and innovative strategies to implement improved sanitation and reduce open defecation practices are a key step to realizing safety and better hygiene. These actions in turn help to achieve dignity, basic human rights, and supports the creation of healthy and productive lives. Our work on reinventing the toilet and the development of alternative on-site waste treatment strategies is integrating gender-disaggregated input for both technology development and to our understanding of potential adoption issues.
In the coming weeks, we will embark on a new phase of work in India and will look to partners like SEWA (the leading women’s union and NGO) to help us build in multiple perspectives to further guide our continued R&D and product development.
Let’s make a new sanitation future. She deserves better.
In conjunction with the World Bank’s annual meetings in Washington in mid-April, the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) High-level meeting was convened. The meeting is one mechanism for drawing attention to the need for water and sanitation investments as well as encouraging accountability for countries that have pledged action. As part of the meeting, an updated release of the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Data report was issued. The snapshot is here, and a full report can be found here which provides country-level data.
The sad story is that the MDG target for sanitation for 2015 remains elusive. It is not new news, but it is re-confirmation of slow progress. Sanitation coverage since 1990 has increased 21%. Yet more than one third of the people in the world still do not have access to safe sanitation. Of these, an estimate 1 billion continue to practice open defecation. Diarrheal disease continues to kill and 1,400 children die each day.
The SWA meeting noted that good progress is being made in a number of countries, though investments, implementation and political will is lagging. Of the national-level commitments made at the 2012 SWA meeting, only 50 of 200 countries have completed their goals of bringing expanded safe water and improved sanitation to their citizens.
Nudge, nudge. We can, and need to do better. The goal to end poverty by 2030 will not happen without much expanded investments in sanitation.