by SENATOR CLAIRE MOORE and ROB OAKESHOTT MP
In August 2010, a Solomon Islands woman told Amnesty International that six months previously she had been severely beaten up and raped by two men in the settlement after relieving herself in the sea; “The two men were standing by the beach when I finished. I recognised them immediately from their voices…they were drunk…one of them grabbed my arm and one closed his hand over my mouth. They held me down and took my clothes off and raped me. They were very violent and I had bruises all over my body. I wanted to die desperately and I was crying and crying thinking of my children. After they raped me, they warned me that if I told anyone they would cut me up…I see them around the settlement but I wouldn’t dare tell the police. They…will not hesitate to hurt me again.”
But maybe if this woman had access to a toilet, this wouldn’t have happened. There are 1.25 billion women and girls who do not have access to a toilet. With no place to safely and privately manage their sanitation or their menstrual needs, going to the toilet is a dangerous and terrifying experience.
We were recently briefed by Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, who told us that the risk of sexual violence is especially high for women and girls who must walk long distances to sanitation facilities, especially at night. The same findings were reported to us by WaterAid, who have collected stories from women in India and Uganda describing how “a woman does not feel safe walking to the toilet. At night, men rape women who are going there.”
Along with fear and insecurity, these women’s stories were full of shame and humiliation – shame because they had nowhere private to go to the toilet with dignity. This steeps the issue in silence and makes discussing sensitive topics such as sanitation and menstruation even more of a social and cultural taboo.
Along with the increased risk to their personal safety, dignity and right to life, having no access to a toilet also jeopardises the health of many women and girls. The links between poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and illness are well established. There are increased susceptibilities to diarrhoea and infections such as worms and trachoma. There is also an increased risk from health issues specific to women- puerperal sepsis during child birth and reproductive health problems due to poor menstrual hygiene. Women are also most often the care-givers within the family and the community of those who are experiencing illness. Reducing the burden of illness of others will have a significant impact upon women.
Poor access to sanitation undermines girls’ education. Experience from CARE Australia’s development programs found that having safe, hygienic toilets for girls at school substantially boosts female attendance. Girls are expected to remain modest and are regularly abused or attacked if trying to go to the toilet when there are no proper facilities. As a result, girls frequently miss school, especially during their menstrual period. When girls ‘hold on’ all day in order to attend school, they end up having to relieve themselves at night, when doing so is most dangerous.
Finally, a lack of safe, accessible toilets also limits women’s economic opportunities. Collecting water or finding a place to go to the toilet can take women away from productive activities for long lengths of time. On the other hand, ensuring safe access to water and sanitation can provide women with entrepreneurial and leadership opportunities in toilet construction and community water management as well as the time to embrace other economic opportunities or to spend time with their families.
A clear picture of the problem has been painted. It is time that we move forward with action. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognising the Right to Water and Sanitation. Australia is yet to publicly acknowledge their support for this Right, and we now have an opportunity for parliament to publically acknowledge the Right to Water and Sanitation.
The issue of sanitation and violence against women is particularly relevant to the Pacific region. Violence impacts on more than two-thirds of Pacific women, a staggering figure, while only around half of the populations in some countries in the region have access to sanitation. Water and sanitation-related illnesses impact significantly in this setting, with diseases such as worms rampant in some populations. We must work with our regional neighbors to improve this.
On a positive note, we are trying. The Australian Government has just announced over $300 million of funding for Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development Initiative. One objective of this initiative it to improve the economic opportunities of women in the Pacific through improved access to financial services and markets. Women are being encouraged to engage with local markets and sell produce to generate an income. But for women to reach their full potential in this setting, it is essential that these markets provide access to safe sanitation facilities so that the overall burden of violence and illness is reduced, not increased, for these women.
It is time for the Australian Parliament and public to take notice, to listen and to help in the ways that we can. As members of the Parliamentary Group on Population and Development, we are working hard to raise awareness and drive action.
Senator Claire Moore is a Senator for Queensland and Chair of the Parliamentary Group for Population and Development (PGPD). Rob Oakeshott MP is an active member of the PGPD and chair of the Male Parliamentarians Against Violence sub-committee.