BLOG: Theo Clarke "Spend a penny: foreign aid is helping girls and women have access to the loo"

Writing for Politic's Home on the 21 November, Theo Clarke, former Director of CFID and CEO of The Coalition for Global Prosperity highlights how women and girls are being denied the oppertunity to reach their potential because of the simple injustice of not having access to a loo.

Spend a penny: foreign aid is helping girls and women have access to the loo

Starting your period can be stressful for any young girl. But being able to use a clean loo in private is a privilege that most British girls can take for granted.

As in so many countries, in Bangladesh girls are confronted with a very different reality, and the consequences of this are stark. All too often, starting their period is the beginning of the end in terms of educational attainment and future prospects. World Toilet Day is a good chance to reflect on this, and in particular on the effects that good sanitation can have.

The fact that many Bangladeshi girls can’t access a toilet during their periods means that they start skipping school. Indeed, a WaterAid survey has found that an alarming 40% of girls in Bangladesh miss school during their period. The cumulative impact of missing days of schooling every month is holding too many Bangladeshi women back.

With nowhere adequate to go to the toilet, people are all too often forced to use unsafe or far away facilities, or go outdoors. Going out alone in search of a place to go to the toilet can be risky for anyone, but women and girls face the added threat of sexual harassment and violence.

WaterAid surveyed women and girls living in Bhopal, India about this issue and 94% of them said that they faced violence or harassment when trying to find a place to go to the loo.

Indeed, the issues facing young girls with their period participating in school don’t stop in adolescence. This obstacle carries into the workplace, too, holding women back from earning a living. A Bangladeshi study shows that women miss up to six days of work per month when they do not have a way to cleanly and privately manage their period in the workplace.

This injustice is holding Bangladesh back. If gender gaps in the workplace could be closed, global GDP could increase to the tune of 28 trillion dollars by 2025. Access to toilets could help redress the gender imbalance in employment.

It cannot be right that women and girls are being denied the opportunity to reach their potential because of the simple injustice of not having access to a loo.

But this isn’t just an issue that affects women and girls. Everyone deserves the basic dignity of access to a toilet. But in Bangladesh, over half of the population, 85 million people, do not have access to a decent household toilet. An estimated 40% of schools and 47% of healthcare facilitates in Bangladesh are also without decent toilets.

This is a global problem, though. Poor access to decent toilets and clean water causes diarrhoeal diseases that claim the lives of almost 800 children every day – that’s an average of one child every two minutes.

Every day we take our clean, hygienic, private toilets for granted. It is easy to do. But the reality is that 2.3 billion people, almost a third of the world’s population, do not have access to this basic essential. In fact, right now, more people have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet.

I saw this first-hand on a recent visit with WaterAid Bangladesh to visit Mollar Bosti Slum in Dhaka, home to more than 9,000 people. I met with rickshaw pullers, garment workers and day servants, many of whom had arrived in the city in hope of finding a better life.

Before WaterAid began its work here, people faced a demeaning lack of hygiene facilities every day. Local residents shared with me how much of the slum was built on raised platforms, with ‘hanging latrines’. I was shocked to hear that this amounted to a concrete slab mounted on precarious boards, with open sewers below, creating a significant health hazard for the village every rainy season.

This was not only beneath the dignity of the villagers but also provided the ideal circumstances for cholera to take its grip on the community.

Now, however, people in Mollar Bosti have community water points and clean, decent and well-maintained community toilets, as well as an improved drainage system. The community leads and runs educational campaigns to improve awareness and understanding of the facilities, including a competition with prizes for families demonstrating good hygiene practices.

As a result, poor health is dropping and the village are proud of their new facilities, which they maintain and run themselves.

For women and girls in particular, this has had a dramatic effect on their lives. The young girls I spoke to in the slum told me how they no longer have to walk long distances and wait in queues to get to a water tap, which used to run for only a few hours each day. They also do not have to feel unsafe every time they go to the loo, as the new toilets are well lit and maintained. And once they start their periods they no longer have to worry each month, as they now have the means to care for themselves hygienically, in privacy, and with dignity.

The visit to Mollar Bosti and the stories I heard there are testament to the fact that water, sanitation and hygiene are transformational in their impact. With ripple effects for health, education, gender rights and economic productivity, it is clear that investing in water, sanitation and hygiene is a use of aid funds of which we can all be proud.

To mark World Toilet Day, WaterAid have released their new report ‘Out of Order: The State of the World's Toilets 2017’ which explores how the lack of decent toilets around the world prevents women and girls from fulfilling their potential.

Theo Clarke is Chief Executive of The Coalition for Global Prosperity.