World Toilet Day is commemorated on November 19 to raise awareness and spur action to tackle the sanitation crisis globally. This year, the theme is toilets and jobs. It highlights the role sanitation plays in increasing productivity, creating jobs and helping with economic growth.
The theme could not be more fitting for Pakistan where every day, thousands of school children are making a tremendous contribution towards improving sanitation not just in their schools but their communities as well.
These children are taking the mantle to help their communities end open defecation. They know the importance of using a toilet and are asking their parents to build toilets in their homes. They are also showing their families and friends how to use toilets and wash hands with soap. These children are heroes.
Farman Ullah, a 10-year-old boy from Balochistan is one of them. He is driving change in his school and community by advocating for an end to open defecation. He and his comrades are actively promoting messages on the importance of using toilets in their village. As a result, he convinced his father to construct a latrine in their house for their whole family to use. Farman Ullah is one of the many heroes leading the way to a cleaner, healthier Pakistan, and on this World Toilet Day, we celebrate them.
Pakistan’s achievement of the Sanitation Millennium Development Goal is a source of pride for the country. Not only was the target met, it was surpassed despite significant hurdles like massive earthquakes, internal displacements, and floods that continue to affect the country. This is a remarkable triumph. Despite these gains, a lot still needs to be done to rise to the challenge set by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that call for adequate and equitable access to sanitation for everyone.
It is a sad reality that in 2016 as many as 25 million Pakistanis still practice open defecation – the fifth largest population of open defecators in the world. It is unconceivable that we live at a time when almost 135 million people own a mobile phone yet half of the people living in rural areas still practice open defecation.
Open defecation robs people of the dignity they deserve. It is a demonstration of the growing inequality in society, as it affects mostly poor rural communities where children are already vulnerable to disease and malnutrition. Unfortunately, every day in Pakistan 110 children die from diarrhoea, of which most forms can be easily prevented with proper access to sanitation and hygiene.
Securing Pakistan’s present and future generations requires effective and equitable investment in the most disadvantaged and marginalised children. This can only happen if the most deprived children are kept at the heart of the agenda while formulating policies and allocating government budgets. While sanitation certainly makes for an uncomfortable discussion for many, addressing it will go a long way to improve the health and wellbeing of all its citizens, especially children. Inadequate sanitation costs the government about Rs344 million annually.
Access to proper sanitation underscores many aspects of children’s growth and wellbeing. Ensuring children’s access to water and sanitation improves their health and nutrition, thus reducing their chances of being stunted and malnourished. It increases their likelihood of attending and staying in school allowing them to fulfil their ambitions and fully contribute to society. It also protects them against violence which often occurs as young girls relieve themselves in the open fields at night.
Ending open defecation is not just about providing access to toilets, it’s about creating a new normal where everyone understands the importance of toilets and uses them. Unicef and its partners have helped more than eight million people gain access to improved sanitation in the country since 2010. We must all play our part as individuals. We must realise the impact having adequate sanitation can have on our lives.
We need to be ready to not only hold our leaders to account to provide these services, but also be prepared to contribute ourselves to improve our sanitation and environment at large. It is our collective responsibility that will ultimately determine whether our children become successful in contributing towards a more healthy, prosperous and sustainable world in the future.
The advent of the SDGs represents an opportunity to take action. The government has pledged to declare 90 percent of Pakistan free of open defecation by 2025, an undertaking that is befitting of our endeavour to ensure that every child has a fair chance to access the facilities, services, and skills they need to reach their full potential. How do we do this? By strengthening institutional systems and working with communities to promote positive sanitation behaviours. Not only is this the right thing to do, it’s the right time to do it.
While the government’s efforts are laudable, ending open defecation calls for strong, sustainable and focused partnerships with governments, development partners, business and religious leaders, academia, innovators, and civil society. As little as a $1 investment on sanitation will earn a $7 return.
In recognition of the heroic actions by children all over the country, Unicef is sharing their toilet hero testimonies with the world.
The writer is the Unicef representative in Pakistan.