A World Toilet Day demonstration today in New Delhi (Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)
If you're reading this site, chances are you take your clean toilet for granted. But not everyone is so lucky. In fact, 2.5 billion people — more than a third of the global population — lack access to a clean, safe and private toilet; 1.1 billion people practice open defecation, using fields, ditches and even plastic bags instead of a toilet. And in 45 countries around the world, less than half of the population has access to adequate sanitation.
The consequences can be deadly: every day, nearly 2,000 children die from diarrhea caused by poor sanitation — indeed, diarrhea's the second leading cause of child mortality today.
It's an unacceptable situation — and the reason why in 2010, the United Nations declared access to clean drinking water and sanitation to be human rights, recognizing that having a safe and clean way to go to the bathroom can be tremendously important for health, human dignity and gender equality.
This year, the UN went further: following the lead of an NGO called the World Toilet Organization, the international body declared November 19 World Toilet Day.
In terms of gender equality, it's women and girls who are often the most heavily affected by the lack of toilet access. Girls in developing countries without adequate toilets often skip up to five days of school every month while they're menstruating — rather than face the embarrassment and stress of attempting to deal with their period in those conditions. One study in Ethiopia found that more than half of all girls missed at least one day of school per month, and another, in India, found that 23 per cent of girls drop out of school when they reach puberty. What's more, having to go outside for a toilet can mean travelling long distances, often at night — which can increase the risk of harassment and sexual violence.
In 2000, the UN committed to halving the proportion of the population with poor sanitation by 2015 — and while it may not reach that goal at the current rate of change, things are improving. In 1990, just over half the world's population didn't have access to a clean toilet, which averages out to about 240,000 people each day gaining such access over the intervening years.
And there's plenty of research on the positive effects that follow from improving sanitation. The World Health Organization has estimated that for every $1 invested in sanitation, a country sees a return of up to $5. And on a smaller scale, one school sanitation program in Bangladesh improved enrollment by girls by 11 per cent.
This year, World Toilet Day has rallied behind the hashtag #WeCantWait. To find out about initiatives to bring clean, safe and private toilets to all people around the world, head over to the websites of the World Toilet Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.