When a toilet means the difference between life and death

The absence of sanitation in villages, cities and countries across the world costs women and girls their safety and, sometimes, their lives.

Last month, two young girls in Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India, disappeared from their village earlier as they left the safety of their homes at night in search of a toilet. These girls -- along with 526 million women and girls worldwide -- had no toilet or bathroom to use.

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Later that night these young teenage girls were found gang-raped, murdered and hung.

Women and girls are too often the principal victims of a lack of fundamental human rights. In this case, access to basic sanitation – a simple fixture we often take for granted – brought an end to the lives of two young girls.

A recent report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme estimated that nearly 65 percent of India’s rural population lives without access to a toilet, leaving nearly 300 million women and girls exposed to the risk of harassment and assault while they search for a place to relieve themselves.  Importantly, the new Indian Prime Minister has himself spearheaded tackling this issue claiming last year on the campaign trail that India should 'build toilets instead of temples', drawing attention to the health impact of lack of access to sanitation, as well as the added threat of sexual assault for girls and women.  

Access to sanitation is not just a challenge in India. A staggering one-in-three people around the world lack access to basic sanitation. And every day, 526 million women and girls are forced to defecate in difficult, unsanitary conditions.

But, like the Prime Minister of India, world leaders are starting to speak out on the issue. Last week, the UN Deputy Secretary General, Jan Eliasson, launched a global call to action to highlight the impact of sanitation. In a speech given at the UN, Eliasson called on the world to “break the diplomatic silence on open defecation,” citing the risks of violence for women and girls, and the increased health risks associated with the spread of disease. 

While a few in the international community have lobbied for the issue of proper sanitation to have its place on the development and poverty elimination mantle, it’s nowhere near enough. Sanitation remains the worst performing indicator of the MDGs. And while the reaction of world leaders calls for justice on the back of this horrific event is welcomed, more needs to be done.

And we can start in Washington. As the global leader in foreign aid, the U.S. has an opportunity to impact millions of lives in the developing world by moving The Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2013 (H.R. 2901) forward, a bill that would provide 100 million people with access to water and sanitation.

The bill is a reallocation of current appropriations. It will improve the well-being, safety and dignity for millions of people in the world who live without a basic toilet. The bill has strong bipartisan support, and won’t cost U.S. taxpayers an extra dime.

At a time where more people have a cell phone than a toilet, we have to ask ourselves, or perhaps we can ask Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, where our priorities lie.

For the two teenage girls from Uttar Pradesh it is too late, but let’s not let one more child, girl, boy or woman be put at risk ever again. It is time for the world to fight for access to sanitation and water as a fundamental human right.  

Evans is CEO and co-founder of The Global Poverty Project.