“The lack of a simple and adequate toilet in the domestic sphere means defecating in the open air in often unsanitary conditions, without privacy and even under risks of insecurity, especially for women and girls, who can and do suffer assault and rape as they have to seek isolated spaces to relieve themselves,” said Prof. Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, United Nations special rapporteur for human right to water and sanitation, in a pre-recorded video message.
Countering the argument of lack of government funding for adequate sanitation facilities, Arrojo-Agudo added that significant public funds are now available, not only to tackle the pandemic but also for the post-pandemic socio-economic recovery in what is called the Green New Deal of the 21st century.
“The key is to definitively assume the need to invest a significant part of these funds in strengthening public health systems and in particular water and sanitation services as the cornerstone of public health. This is a democratic challenge and not a business opportunity,” he said.
Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, WCC deputy general secretary, challenged the churches to address the sanitation crisis.
“For the sake of the billions of people whose human rights and dignity vis-à-vis, health, gender justice, equality, racism, casteism, education are compromised due to lack of a dignified and healthy sanitation facilities or a toilet, churches cannot and must not remain silent. It’s high time the churches speak out and do not hide behind the notion of ‘profanity’ to talk about toilets.”
Dagfinn Høybråten, secretary general of Norwegian Church Aid, reminded that children in developing countries stop going to school due to lack of access to toilets, especially during menstruation. “This is a taboo that hinders a dignified life for many women and girls and affect their education severely”, he said.
“Human dignity is at the core of the church. We are committed to protect human dignity, by our work in addressing sanitation, especially in promotion of menstrual hygiene, which is crucial to safeguard health, education, human rights and dignity,” added Høybråten.
Bezwada Wilson, from India, coordinator of Sanitary Workers Movement, stressed that manual scavenging is still rampant in the country. “Dry latrines are cleaned manually till today by about 160,000 people, mostly women,” he said.
“Modernising the sanitation system by introducing mechanized cleaning is not a priority of government as they think there are people – the untouchables – who can clean it manually at a much cheaper cost, so why invest money in this sector?” asked Wilson.
Other speakers of the webinar included Bishop Arnold Temple, chairperson of the WCC Ecumenical Water Network; Michele Roberts, member of White House Environmental Justice Committee, Rev. Nicole Ashwood, WCC programme executive for Just Community of Women and Men; and Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp. Dinesh Suna, coordinator of the WCC Ecumenical Water Network, moderated the event.