Improving Sanitation Would Curb Gender-Based Violence—and Bolster Global Economies

Fifteen-year-old Hiba grew up in a small Pakistan-held village in Kashmir. When she started menstruating at the age of 13, her dream of becoming a doctor was abruptly disrupted. The closest toilet to Hiba’s school was a 30-minute walk away—along a deserted path where she and her friends were regularly harassed by bystander men. After a while, she dropped out and abandoned her dreams in exchange for safety.

She is not alone.

On International Women’s Day, UN Women launched a one-month campaign branding four trains of the Delhi Metro with messaging on women’s economic empowerment. Improving sanitation in public space could transform economies in countries like India and Pakistan, where girls leave school when they menstruate for the sake of safety. (Yashas Chandra for UN Women / Creative Commons)

Lack of sanitation facilities remains a major challenge for girls around the world—often forcing women to remain uneducated. There are 13 million girls out of school in Pakistan; in neighboring India, 113 million teenagers have left school after puberty due to inadequate sanitation facilities.

Today, one in three girls and women around the world lack access to a decent toilet. One in three women will also suffer physical, sexual or emotional abuse in their lifetimes. Far too often, those issues overlap.

In the tsunami refugee camps of Sri Lanka, in the slums of Kibera in Kenya and even in the everyday toilet landscapes of most of the developing world, reports are common of women being raped, stalked or assaulted when they use public facilities that are not monitored or secured.

According to a Yale study, the average round-trip travel distance to and from a toilet is 210 meters in Bihar, India; at six trips per day and two and a half minutes per trip, this suggests an assault risk exposure time of 15 minutes per woman per day. The study concluded that this results in 635 sexual assaults per year. Researchers were able to calculate this to create US$34 million in assault-related social costs including mental, physical costs and social stigma.

Further research conducted in Bhopal, India revealed that 94 percent of women interviewed said they had faced violence or harassment when going out to defecate. More than one-third had been physically assaulted.

Another Yale study calculated that building sanitation facilities in South Africa may reduce the indirect cost of gender based violence by 10 percent, while decreasing assaults by 50 percent.

Inadequately maintained communal toilets also endanger women and girls by making them more prone to more infections and diseases and increasing maternal mortality. The fact that communal toilets are often built in secluded areas also limits women’s free movement and productivity—and, for girls like Hiba, increases school dropouts—and results in a lack of access to decision making spaces like village committees and local government councils that affect their overall status in the communities.

Despite the rising advocacy and awareness around issues regarding gender violence, too little is done in policy-making arenas to ensure safe access to sanitation as a tool to curb gender violence around the world. It is time for inclusive policy making—a process that sees actions around gender-based violence as integrated with issues such as water and sanitation while including the voices of all to identify safety issues and designing better sanitation facilities. Specific strategies, such as better lighting in and around public toilets, must be considered.

While some may say this is an expensive endeavor, better policies produce economic results that can offset costs. Research indicates that the cost of violence against women could amount to around 2 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP). This is equivalent to $1.5 trillion—approximately the value of the economy of Canada.

The threat of violence created by the lack of safe sanitation facilities excludes too many girls around the world from equitable opportunities to achieve. When we galvanize action to ensure the provision of adequate sanitation facilities, we combat gender-based violence—and in the process, we ensure that girls like Hiba are not left behind. 


Quratulain Fatima works in rural Pakistan on gender inclusive development and conflict prevention; she's a former flight lieutenant in the Pakistani air force and the cofounder of Women4PeaceTech. Her writing has been published by outlets like Project Syndicate, Thomas Reuters Foundation, Inter Press Service and Al Jazeera.