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Sanitation as a Human Right

Did you realise that through your last trip to the toilet, you were actually exercising one of your fundamental human rights?

Consider how different your day would have been today had you not had access to a toilet at home, at school, or at work. Globally, 2.3 billion people still do not have access to basic sanitation facilities (World Health Organisation, 2017). The WHO also attributes that about 13% of Kenyans do not have toilets, and go to the bush for calls of nature. As a result, about 23,000 Kenyans die every year as a result of poor sanitation and hygiene (World Bank Water and Sanitation Program Report, 2012).

Not only is access to safe sanitation integral to the right to health and a clean environment, it also evokes the concept of human dignity through the ability to manage one’s bodily functions. Human dignity is fundamental to the right to life.

The human right to sanitation entitles everyone, without discrimination, to: “have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, and social and culturally acceptable, and that provides privacy and dignity” (UN, 2015).

The human right to sanitation is not fulfilled by the presence of a toilet of any kind, in any condition. It delineates a five-pillar criteria that sanitation services must meet in order to satisfy the right to sanitation. They must be:

  1. Available (near to households, schools, workplaces, health centres etc.)
  2. Accessible (to all, without discrimination)
  3. Affordable (should not exceed 5% of households’ incomes)
  4. Safe (free from heath hazards, and in locations that are safe for all users, e.g. where women feel safe from harassment and violence)
  5. Acceptable (culturally and socially, and must protect peoples’ privacy and dignity)

The right to sanitation is therefore highly intertwined with many other universal human rights and is essential to an adequate standard of living. In fact, in many cases, sanitation provides the foundations upon which access to other human rights can be built:

  • Lack of sanitation obstructs the right to life and health. Human excreta encourages the transmission of many infectious diseases including cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, polio. Diarrhoea – a disease directly related to poor sanitation – kills 3100 Kenyan children every year.
  • Lack of sanitation hampers the right to education. 5 million school days are lost every year due to sanitation and water related issues. Inadequate school sanitation facilities are a common barrier to school attendance, especially for girls.
  • Lack of sanitation thwarts the right to dignity. Sick and elderly people face a loss of dignity when sanitation facilities are not available in the near vicinity.

World Toilet Day, celebrated on 19th November, is about taking action to ensure that everyone has a safe toilet by 2030. This is part of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: sanitation and water. Although the moniker “World Toilet Day” might sound peculiar, or laughable – or even cringe inducing – the statistics mentioned here are dire.

Ensuring access to sanitation is imperative for health, education and dignity. It is a fundamental right that must be promoted.