Basic Sanitation & Hygiene for All: Reaching the MDG for Women & the Disabled

Bellatrines improved water pit latrineThe United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for sanitation is “to halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.” There are an estimated 2.5 billion people who currently lack access to basic sanitation, with more urban people lacking basic sanitation than rural people.  These statistics alone make you realize what a challenge it is to reach the MDG, but what about the things we don’t usually think of?  What about people with disabilities?  What are their challenges to achieve basic sanitation? How do they gain access to a toilet without a ramp? How do they wash their hands when the tap is too low or too high? What about puberty-age school girls?  How do they achieve basic sanitation when there are no proper facilities or disposal methods at school?

Disability and gender issues don’t get nearly as much attention in the global conversation, but they are two very important issues that must be addressed to achieve the MDG for sanitation and hygiene.  Basic sanitation for females and the disabled is linked to a whole host of socio-economic issues, including education, poverty, career choice, and ability to leave the home, even for the shortest and most basic trips.  Increasing access may be as simple as adding a ramp so people in wheelchairs or on crutches gain access to toilets; increasing size of the toilet stall so a wheelchair will easily fit into the space; raising or lowering the height of the tap; providing disposal units for sanitary napkins; and providing a sink and soap for washing reusable pads.

The solutions don’t seem to be difficult, but they still remain out of reach for many. Ninety percent of children with disabilities in developing countries don’t attend school, while adolescent girls between the ages of 12 and 18 are absent from school approximately 5 days per month and 1 in 10 African girls drop out of school after puberty because of the lack of basic sanitation facilities. These statistics are both staggering and saddening.

Think of how many more people would be contributing members of society if they had access to basic sanitation.  Girls would be able to go to school, get an education, and work to help financially support their families.  Disabled children and adults would not be relegated to the home, but could go to school, to a job, or do something as simple as travel to the next town. Currently, up to 80% of disabled people are unemployed because they either lack the required education or employers do not or cannot provide access to basic sanitation.

What is being done to help the matter?

The Global Sanitation Fund, part of the Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council, is a pooled global fund that finances sanitation and hygiene initiatives in eligible countries. The Global Sanitation Fund also works with governments of developing countries to fund the implementation of  national sanitation policies.  Experience has shown that these policies exist in many countries, but the money to implement them does not.

The Global WASH Campaign is more of a people-centered approach that mobilizes support for bringing sanitation and hygiene to the global agenda. Local WASH campaigns are active in more than 30 developing countries where their activities focus around the underserved poor, women and children.

Providing basic sanitation to women and the disabled can also occur through:

  • Removing social, institutional, and technical barriers
  • Working to change perceptions, myths, and attitudes
  • Bringing awareness to the public
  • Creating buy-in at the local, regional, and national levels of government
  • Engineering special designs for sanitation infrastructure
  • Planning for all from the beginning of the project (if you plan from the beginning, costs will be lower)
  • Improvising to suit specific needs

We still have a long way to go to bring basic sanitation to the 2.5 billion people worldwide who currently lack these facilities, but as we increase awareness around these issues, we must remember that a large portion of the population are women and the disabled, and they face many, more difficult challenges.  Increasing awareness and education of these challenges will help provide proper facilities for all.

What are your thoughts on the Millennium Development Goal for sanitation? Do you think we’ll reach the goal by 2015?

This post was originally posted on StudentReporter.org. Lindsay Shafer, a student in University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Environmental Studies program, wrote this post while a Student Reporter at the World Water Forum 2012. She has done anthropological and archaeological work around the world and is currently studying resource management with a particular interest in food security. For her full bio and additional writing, please go here.

About Abby

Abby Waldorf graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in May 2012 with a B.A. in Sustainability and Environmental Management and a minor in Economics. Her senior thesis focused on the gender implications of using microfinance as a funding mechanism for water supply and sanitation. During her time at Penn, Abby was a founding member of the umbrella association for environmental groups, the Student Sustainability Alliance at Penn, and has been featured on Penn’s sustainability website for her accomplishments within the community. Abby is the Managing Director of wH2O and recently joined the CGIAR Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems as the Communications and Engagement Intern in Sri Lanka.
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