Our news
10 October 2013
A right to a toilet: A right to be safe, clean and healthy

We had to walk 25 minutes to go to the next latrine, so I wouldn’t go nor would let my daughters go at night. It was too far to walking the dark and I didn’t want anything to happen to them. As long as it was dark, they had to hold it.” Her name is Dolly, she thinks she’s 45 and has three daughters. She was right to be concerned about the safety of her girls. “Women and girls disproportionately face risks of sexual violence when they have to walk long distances to sanitation facilities, especially at night,” argues Catarinade Albuquerque, UN expert on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. 

Like Dolly and her daughters, more than one third of the urban population in Bangladesh doesn’t have access to improved sanitation facilities. That is about 15 million Bangladeshis that either have to defecate in the open, use hanging toilets or buckets, or walk long distances every time they need to go to the bathroom.

Bina, a neighbour of Dolly, has a latrine next to a pond across her house. The latrine though, is far from being a clean and safe place for her and her family. Three walls of tin roof sheets, without a cover, the latrine is a harbour for diseases. She and her family of eight share this latrine with two other families. Every time the rainy season comes, the pit floods. And the picture is not pretty. Whatever is in the pit by the time it floods comes out and inundates the path where she, her family and everyone around the area has to walk through, putting them in touch with excreta accumulated for months and in risk of getting sick.

But fixing this recurrent problem is not cheap. Every four to five months, Bina’s and the other two families have to pull together 4,000 Taka (~50 USD) to fix the pit after it floods, or 1,500 Taka (~20 USD) when one of the walls has broken. In a country where more than eight million Bangladeshis live with less than USD 2 per day, resources are already strained without the maintenance of a non-functional and unsafe latrine like this, let alone building a new one.

Apart from the direct costs of the regular repairs of a low quality latrine, the lack of access to an improved sanitation facility has a wider economic impact on the poor households and the country. The total economic impact of inadequate sanitation in Bangladesh amounts to an estimated loss of about US$ 4.2 billion each year and losses related to health are the single largest contributor to this, according to a recent report from the World Bank. For example, because the latrines were so far from where Dolly and her daughters live and they were trying to limit going to the bathroom for long periods of time, they could be more susceptible to urinary tract infections and dehydration by drinking less water over the course of the day. Treating these and other illness for thousands of women and children in Bangladesh that come from living in unsanitary conditions adds up to more than 316 million USD a year.

In addition, the sickness-related loss of work time and also the time needed for accessing a latrine can reduce a family’s income by a substantial proportion, driving them deeper into poverty. For example, Sarminakter, another neighbour of Bina, used to share access to two latrines with almost 200 families. “Previously, we would have to line up in a queue, to use the latrines, because there were always so many people who needed to use it, at the same time. Sadly, many of us would wet ourselves, from waiting in line. We would have to knock repeatedly for the person inside to hurry up. It was always such a mess.” Aside from the impact this has on their dignity, waiting in line to use the dirty latrine by the pond is time that could be used for productive activities. According to the Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank, welfare and time losses, which stem from not having proper access to toilet facilities, cost Bangladesh more than 450 million USD per year.

Taking action

Since 2009, UNDP, UN-HABITAT and DFID have been helping the Government of Bangladesh to tackle this problem with the women of the city slums taking the lead. With the support of UPPR, women in 24 towns lead their communities and agree among themselves on what constitutes poverty and extreme poverty in the slums where they live. After agreeing upon relevant social, economic and physical poverty criteria, they go on to identify the poorest households that are in greatest need for support among them all.

Support provided by UPPR includes grants for setting up a small business; grants for allowing their kids continuing education; an opportunity to take on an apprenticeship for further developing their employability; the provision of new and safe water facilities closer to home; or the construction of new improved pit latrines. It is the support available across different sectors that allow the communities to understand and tackle poverty as a matter that goes beyond their income.

Dolly and her family, as a female-headed household, were chosen among their neighbours to benefit from the support of UPPR and receive a new pit latrine. Because core to UPPR is a community-led partnership approach to urban poverty reduction, it is not UPPR or any of its partners that build or contract the construction of the identified solutions. Instead, all UPPR investments in infrastructure are delivered through Community Contracts that are prepared by the communities themselves with technical support from municipal and project staff. By doing the work themselves, communities avoid the costs of hiring external contractors, develop local skills, and increase the income of slum residents by employing them as skilled and unskilled labourers.

Seeing results

As of June 2013, like Dolly, over 140 thousand people have benefitted from new improved latrines. “Rainy days would be the worst. We would have to wade through pools of water to get to the latrine. And we were always worried to go alone. Back then; the latrines were always filthy and reeking. Conditions were so unhygienic, that many of us would fall sick and be unable to go to work. We faced a lot of difficulties. Now, we live in much better conditions than before. There’s one toilet for every three families; and we take turns to clean it. We no longer have to worry about waiting in line because there is no queue. It is easier to keep the toilet clean now, and so people get sick less often. That means we are able to go to work regularly.

Other than the economic benefits of expanding access to improved sanitation in Bangladesh, namely health costs, higher worker productivity, better school attendance and quality of education, and reduced water treatment costs, there are significant social benefits for the families, especially women. They have greater privacy and more pleasant environments to live, and fewer of them feel ashamed of their living conditions. Most importantly, letting them take the decision on what they need, who needs it, and the ability to act upon it to alleviate the needs has made them feel empowered in a country in which women still widely suffer under gender inequality and discrimination.

So much more remains to be done. Open latrines can still be seen in Bina’s and Dolly’s neighbourhood, where also access to water continues to be insufficient. To address this, UPPR has also included support for the construction of water facilities among their activities, from which over 160 thousand families have benefited so far. And while the numbers will continue to increase, a project cannot address these gaps on its own. With limited attention having been placed on the needs of urban poor residents in Bangladesh over the past years, to improve this situation and for Bangladesh to meet its sanitation MDG target by 2015, greater attention by government and development partners is needed.