Why women and girls suffer most for lack of a loo

Bawili speaks passionately, without embarrassment, as villagers gather under a tree to shatter taboos. They are talking toilets.

There’s no time to be squeamish about indelicate subjects. In her remote corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, children are dying from diarrhoea – and even the simplest of pit latrines can save lives, she urges.

Bawili is chairing Mwandiga’s Community Health Club, and every meeting ends with the same cry: ‘Development, forward!’

It’s no exaggeration to say that building a toilet helps families take their first big step out of generational poverty. If Bawili is passionate about privies, it’s because women like her benefit most from having one.

Watch our film about Bawili, Bridget and Purna now.

Easy target
For Bawili, it’s personal. Nine years ago, her daughter Ebinda ventured into the bush at dusk to go to the toilet – and stumbled home, bruised and distraught.

Ebinda doesn’t know how many men attacked her that evening: she never saw their faces. She just knows life has never been the same since. She became pregnant through the attack and left school. She was only 14.

It wasn’t the first time the family had had to rebuild their lives from scratch. In the 1990s, Bawili’s husband was killed by insurgents, and the family was forced to flee to Tanzania.

When they were re-settled in Mwandiga, there was no water and no sanitation. Without these basic building blocks of development, Bawili’s daughter was a sitting target.

One in four

Ebinda’s situation is far from unique: 1 billion women and girls worldwide are still without a safe, hygienic toilet and so lack the protection, security and dignity that a loo provides.

As UN Women puts it, the world has ‘unfinished business’ after missing the Millennium Development Goals on water and sanitation – and women are paying the highest price for that failure.

Without a household toilet, they’re at risk of violence – especially if culture dictates that women wait until dark to set out into the bush.

Without a safe water source close to home, women and girls still spend hours a day collecting water.
And, when these girls hit puberty, life gets even harder…

Dreaming of different
In Bridget’s village in Rukungiri, Uganda, education is highly prized. Most families are banana farmers and recent harvests have been poor.

‘When I finish school, I want to become a nurse,’ says Bridget, 14, brimming with optimism. ‘So I need to stay healthy.’

But until recently, teenage girls like her watched their ambitions wither when they started their period.

Because the old toilets at Ndago Primary were virtually unusable, most teenage girls missed class for a week each month – and many left school altogether. Early marriage was suddenly a much more realistic prospect than a medical career.

‘If we felt sick, we’d miss class and that would affect our performance in exams,’ says Bridget.

Yet, all it took to transform Bridget’s prospects was the new toilet blocks which our partner NKKD built – with separate changing rooms for girls. Within three months, 65 girls had re-enrolled in class.

A lightbulb moment
To keep women and girls safe, and to keep girls in education, the whole community has to buy in to the idea that every household and every school needs decent sanitation. That requires key people in a village to become ambassadors for change.

Without a toilet, Purna almost died of diarrhoea. It took a whole day for her to reach hospital: her son, Bishwo, had to carry her on his back. ‘The doctor told us if we’d waited much longer, we’d have lost our mother,’ he says.

When Bishwo attended sanitation workshops run by our local partner, he had a lightbulb moment. He realised his makeshift latrine was contaminating a stream they used for drinking water.

He used part of his pension and sold two goats to pay for a proper brick toilet next to his home – and invited all his neighbours to his Toilet Open Day. He told them outright they should build a loo too. And many have done just that.

Meanwhile, through our work in Bawili’s village in DRC, the pioneering Community Health Club voted to provide loos for the most vulnerable people in the village – starting with Bawili.

As Bawili explains, when strangers dig latrines together, they build a new sense of community.

What’s more, basic toilets teach people basic truths, that a strong society looks after its weakest.
‘We’re learning to love each other,’ says Bawili. ‘If there’s no love, we cannot build a good society.’