‘‘Sanitation is more important than independence’’
Mahatma Gandhi 1923
Access to sanitation is a human right in itself, and a prerequisite for many of the other human rights to be fulfilled. Improved sanitation leads to improved public health by reducing infections and disease, and stimulating better nutrition. In short, less sickness, lower morbidity and mortality rates, healthier mothers, babies and children, healthier general populations, and more productive workforces.
For women and girls, access to sanitation also often means safety from sexual predators, staying in school, privacy and convenience.
Of the Millennium Development Goals that the world set to achieve by end-2015, the subgoal on access to adequate sanitation is the one farthest off target.
Health and wellbeing
Poor sanitation has many consequences and large potential impact on health. Poor sanitation can cause diarrheal diseases, hookworm, roundworm and whipworm, and trachoma transmission via flies. Some of these diseases are deadly, and all of them are uncomfortable, reduce life quality, and peoples' abilities to go to school, work or perform other important chores.
There are strong linkages between sanitation, nutrition, health and development. Nutrition is not only a matter of good and ample food, but also a matter of the body's ability to take up nutrients from food. Poor nutrition not only affects the general health of men, women and children, but also learning abilities of young children, basically everyone's physical development, and pre-natal health of pregnant mothers.
Impact of adequate sanitation for women and girls
Women and girls without toilets spend 97 billion hours each year finding a place to go. This limits their movement and freedom. Lack of proper sanitation affects women more than it affects men, because a place where a man could go to the toilet might not provide the safety that women require. One in three women worldwide risk shame, disease, harassment and attack because they have nowhere safe to go to the toilet.
Adequate sanitation in schools is important for girls completing their education. In India, for example, the percentage of girls who drop out of school after reaching puberty is 23, or roughly 1 out of every 4 girls who are probably also mostly poor.
Good sanitation provides dignity and wellbeing, but first and foremost, it is crucial to accomplish many of the other goals we have set for human development. It is important in the fight against poverty, social and economic development, and for human rights for all citizens.
In economic terms, it is also a very cost-efficient strategy for development. The Water and Sanitation Programme of the World Bank have estimated that lack of access to sanitation costs the world USD 260 every year, and estimates that each dollar invested in improved sanitation yields a 5 dollar return.