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Every woman’s right to water, sanitation and hygiene

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) and the UN Human Rights Office organized an all-day event, Inspiring Change to Promote Women’s Rights and Dignity, which explored women’s advances in securing their rights and dignity in topics related to water, sanitation, and hygiene.

According to the Chris Williams, the Executive Director of WSSCC the focus must be “on the fundamental rights of women, to examine current policy and practice as well as challenges to women’s empowerment across their life cycle, looking at vulnerable groups through the lens of water, sanitation and hygiene.”

Menstrual hygiene is still considered a taboo topic in many places throughout the world leaving many women without safe, accessible and hygienic spaces for washing and sanitation.  Across the world, it is estimated that 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation and many of them are women.

The consequences of discrimination against women and their inadequate access to water and sanitation can be grave. Menstruating girls may not able to attend school because of associated stigma and/or inadequate sanitation and hygiene at home and in schools. Women suffering from fistula after childbirth or facing health complications as a result of female genital mutilation may be ostracized from their communities and families.

According to Jyoti Sanghera, Chief of the UN Human Rights Office Economic and Social Issues Section, this “stigma around menstruation and menstrual hygiene is a violation of several human rights, most importantly of the right to human dignity” that must be overcome.

The interactive dialogue at the event brought together the international community, as well as health and human rights experts to share their own personal experiences tackling these challenges.

In Kolkata, India, Smarajit Jana, the principal of Sonagachi Resarch and Training Institute, launched a successful intervention program for sex workers that have expanded women’s access to education and health, improving their health and sanitary conditions. Jana stressed that there is no dignity without basic necessities—water, sanitation, and sanitary napkins. “We are talking about the dignity of women,” says Jana. “Sex workers are just like everyone else.”

Mousomi Mohanti, a health educator in the field of HIV, is working in West Bengal, India, to support the social marketing of condoms and sanitary napkins to sex workers. “It’s not the price of condoms or sanitary napkins,” she says. “The biggest problem is for women to ask for it.” According to WSSCC, only 12 per cent of India’s 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins.

In Kolda, Senegal, Khalidou Sy has been working as a village coordinator to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation, as well as addressing fistula and women’s hygiene. “You can’t change century old practices overnight,” says Sy. “You need to bring men and women together to start the process of social transformation and change.”

In Nepal, Shyra Karki, a Human Rights Officer for Mitini Nepal, advocates for the rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community.

 “Women are treated as second class citizens [in Nepal] and among these women, lesbian and transgender women are considered even lower,” says Karki.  According to Karki, this treatment can make them vulnerable to health challenges and feel excluded from accessing sanitary facilities or materials, especially transgender women dressed as men who may feel embarrassed purchasing sanitary napkins or seeking medical attention.

“In a world where 2.5 billion persons lack adequate sanitation, where menstruation is often stigmatized, and women face multiple forms of discrimination, the failure to take immediate action to guarantee their right to water, sanitation and hygiene poses dire consequences,” says Craig Mokhiber, Chief of the UN Human Rights Office Development and Economic and Social Issues Branch.  “It demands the attention, not just of the human rights community, but of health professionals, governments, activists, economists and broader society.”

According to Mokhiber, guaranteeing the right to water, sanitation, and hygiene is “an enormous human rights challenge of the twenty first century that has yet to be met.”

14 March 2014

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