This is a simple question with multiple answers.
Only in the last 150 years has our toilet usage in the UK become as convenient as it is now. The provision of a widespread toilet and sewage system has meant that diseases that were once prevalent in the UK, such as cholera, dysentery, worms, and pneumonia, have virtually died out.
For many people around the world, however, this is not the case. some 2.4 billion people do not have access to a toilet at all, whilst 4.5 billion people – around 56 times the population of the UK- either have no toilets or have seriously sub-standard toilets.
The negative effects of not having access to safe and hygienic sanitation are numerous. Let’s start with schoolchildren. If you are in primary school and don’t have a toilet there, you will very likely have to use an alleyway or open space. There are many health problems associated with open defecation, from diarrhoea and dysentery (usually spread from flies), to being infected by worms. Having such an illness is disabling, and often results in further ailments and long-term conditions.
As you progress through the school system, the same problems exist, but they become more problematic for girls. There is a great deal of shame and embarrassment surrounding menstruation, which heightens the discomfort that young girls feel when they have no private space at school. It is estimated that 23% of girls drop out of school when they start their periods; in fact, the lack of privacy and safety when going to the toilet is one of the main reasons why girls drop out of education entirely. Improving sanitation facilities in school has a positive impact on gender equality, by breaking down one of the biggest barriers that exists between girls and their future earning potential. We have found that there is a 17.5% increase in the number of girls enrolling[i] when we construct a toilet in a school.
Another serious effect of poor sanitation, which is often overlooked, is the safety and security of children. When a little boy or girl ventures out of the school grounds to find a place to go to the toilet, they are vulnerable to harassment and attack. This is not only the case for young children; there have been multiple incidents involving women who have been assaulted while looking for a private place to use as a toilet. The ability to access a safe toilet puts an end to this risk.
Our work with a school creates a link with its local community. When we provide toilets in a school, we also look to build toilets in the local area. This ensures a comprehensive solution to the wide-reaching health hazards associated with open defecation. Our research has shown that, through this approach, there is a 63% increase in the number of school days attended and a 55% drop in work days lost by parents, simply because both the adults and their children are not ill so often. Our data suggests that where toilet facilities are available and used by the family, there is a 31% increase in household income. Significantly, having more money enables parents to ensure their own and their children’s education and general welfare.
It is clear that the benefits of sanitation are not as simple as the mere existence of a toilet. Providing clean and safe sanitation gives disadvantaged people the foundations from which to achieve a full education and to improve their health and wellbeing. This enables them to escape the cycle of poverty and lead a healthy, fulfilling life.
When many NGOs and government organisations construct toilets in the developing world, minimal consideration is taken about the type of toilet to be built, its location, or the quality of education about sanitation, maintenance, and usage. Sanitation First’s ecological sanitation toilets, however, achieve wide-reaching results, and we even process the human waste collected and naturally convert it into highly productive agricultural fertiliser: a complete win-win
[i] After nearly 20 years providing ecological sanitation, the figures that we cite have been collected by us, in the day-to-day running of our work in India.