Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Gender, toilets and visiting Mrs Murphy

I’ve always found it strange that people are so shy and awkward when talking about the excretory functions of our bodies. We twist our language in to all sorts of strange linguistic contortions, desperately seeking some distant euphemism to avoid the embarrassingly vulgar description of what we are actually doing.

We ‘excuse ourselves’ or we ‘go to the bathroom’. We sometimes ‘use the facilities’ or ‘powder our noses’. Some people ‘take a leak’; others may go for a ‘number two’. I can go to ‘the John’ and ‘sit on the throne’. In the 1940’s novel ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’, the children on the long road trip often make stops at restrooms to “visit Mrs. Murphy”.

Personally I find this to be an especially puzzling behaviour amongst human irrationality. Urinating and defecating are functions which have been with humans for so long, they literally pre-date us as a species. As a matter of fact, they have been around for pretty much as long as biological life itself. We have been “visiting Mrs. Murphy” since we were tiny fish at the bottom of the sea.

You would think in all those millions of years, we would have become more comfortable with solids and liquids exiting our bodies. But it seems “Mrs. Murphy” would argue otherwise…

Well for this blog, I'm going to be a bit more direct. This morning, at approximately 9:30am in Tamale, Ghana; I went to the office toilet at WOSAG and did a poo.

(Then washed my hands)

This may seem rather flippant, but one of the things I've been learning as an ICS volunteer is that, in development terms, there is actually a dire need for people to be talking more openly about those bodily functions and toilets.

Here is a picture of our toilet at WOSAG. The flush handle is broken but there is a hook in the cistern you can pull up to make it flush. The cistern cover is missing, and there are quite a few mosquitos in the air as well as biting ants on the floor. However, there is a door which has a working lock. There is a sink outside with soap to wash your hands.

This puts the ICS volunteers at WOSAG in a very fortunate position compared to the estimated 1 in 5 people in Ghana who don’t have toilet facilities available to them, as well as to the approximately 2.5 billion people worldwide lack access to a decent toilet.

This absence of basic sanitation means that every day, about 1,400 children under the age of five die of illnesses linked to unclean water and poor sanitation.

This is one of the most serious issues facing developing countries, however as an ICS volunteer with the women’s charity WOSAG, I’m particularly interested in how gendered the consequences of poor sanitation can be.

More than half of primary schools in developing countries don’t have access to water and sanitation. Young girls often drop out of school once they start menstruating because there are no safe bathrooms for them to use. This means they can quickly fall behind boys in education, and struggle to catch up.

Using communal toilets, women and girls can become targets for sexual assault, particularly late at night. This is also true for the women and girls who go out in the open, where they are also at risk from wildlife and hazardous terrain.

When men take ownership of the provision of sanitation, they often ignore how gender-specific many of the issues involved are as well as how damaging it can be when provisions are inadequate. Studies in India have shown that forcing greater gender equality in local politics led to much greater sanitation and water facilities because those were the issues that mattered more to women.

For women to achieve equality and to break through the barriers that continue to hamper their health, education and economic empowerment, it is absolutely vital that they have the necessary facilities that allow them to live in health, safety and security.

As an ICS volunteer with WOSAG, I’m working on gender related projects including reducing teen pregnancy and domestic violence as well as improving awareness of sexual reproductive health and rights.

All our work relies on the local girls attending the schools we work in, when they may well be at home because they had to drop out once menstruation began (see Caleb's fantastic blog for more on this). Our work relies on women attending the community meetings we set up, whilst they may actually be too busy walking miles to a safe area where they can go to the toilet without fear of sexual assault or snake bites, or that they may have to stay at home – ill from the lack of sanitation.  

Being with WOSAG and ICS has taught me to see many of the world’s development issues in a new light, and that we should not be making assumptions. These basic issues are badly affecting women and girls every single day, making a clean basic toilet one of the most powerful tools for gender equality.  

As such, the world needs to start talking much more loudly and openly about what we do when we go to the toilets, because there are millions of women and girls whose health, education and livelihoods may well depend on it.

Author: Andrew Hamilton, UKV

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