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World Toilet Day and the global politics of sanitation

World Toilet DayNovember 19th marks World Toilet Day, perhaps the one day that justifies what has been the bulk of my scholarly research for the past 11 years. When you realize that World Toilet Day was founded in 2001 by Jack Sim, from the World Toilet Organization, and that it’s only been in the past three years or so that it has been adopted as a United Nations sanctioned official day (with UN Water as the official agency for WTD), you realize that the politics of global sanitation are much more complex than simply shining a light on the fact that more than a billion people still defecate in the open.

I’ve written before on how toilets are political. Access to toilets has been used to control individuals’ lives (through what Foucault calls biopower, the foundation of his scholarship on biopolitics). Can you imagine? Depriving humans from one of their foremost human rights, the right to relieve themselves and fulfill a bodily function that necessitates privacy and dignity? Ironically, as I demonstrated a couple of weeks ago when I gave a talk on the human right to water from a public policy analysis perspective at the University of Connecticut, the human right to sanitation is conceptually separated from the human right to water. Scholars in the field are keen to discuss how human beings have a right to access enough water for their livelihoods. But when it comes to discussing the human right to sanitation? Almost nowhere to be found.

Dual flushing toiletI’ve also been extremely critical of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in their “oh we’re totally going to change the world”, magic-pixie, fairy-dust, flying-unicorn version. Sanitation is the goal where the least progress has been done. Between 2.4 and 2.5 billion people don’t have access to the dignity of a toilet, and over 1 billion (a number that grew from 936 million) people still defecate in the open. Heck, in downtown Vancouver you can find open defecation because homeless people don’t have access to the dignity of a toilet! So, for me, the politics of sanitation governance are real because the big problems include lack of proper implementation mechanisms and political will to solve the issues.

There’s been a lot written about the behavioral determinants of sanitation adoption, and the potential for community-led total sanitation (CLTS). But I strongly believe that, alongside trying to understand why are toilets adopted or not, we need to create the political and societal conditions for global toilet access first. We need to think and talk about sanitation in the same breath as we do with water access. In some ways, as Joe Turner said, the human right to sanitation is even more important than the human right to water.

I’ve written before about the main topic for this year’s World Toilet Day:

Equality, Dignity and the Link Between Gender-Based Violence and Sanitation” is the theme for this year’s World Toilet Day, which seeks to put a spotlight on the threat of sexual violence that women and girls face due to the loss of privacy as well as the inequalities that are present in usability. Toilets generally remain inadequate for populations with special needs, such as the disabled and elderly, and women and girls requiring facilities to manage menstrual hygiene. With the tagline “WeCantWait”, the Day is an opportunity to inspire action and underscore the urgency needed to end open defecation, especially for the women and girls who are particularly vulnerable.

It worries me that it’s 2015 and we are still not there yet with the sanitation goals. Hopefully World Toilet Day will help galvanize people to make a difference, be it twinning a toilet, donating to a sanitation-focused charity or simply, spreading the word. Because We Can’t Wait.

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