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Stigma: an obstacle to universal access to water and sanitation

A homeless person who is forced to urinate in the streets because public restrooms are inexistent; a menstruating woman or girl who is seen as impure and cannot use the toilet at home or in school; a person with a physical disability who is incapable of using public facilities; a transgender person who is harassed in public toilets; a Dalit or a Roma who has no tap water where he or she lives – these are all individuals who are excluded from water provision and access to sanitation because of the stigma they endure.

Dalit men take a bathe at an open place in Dhaka, Bangladesh © EPA/Abir AbdullahThe often ignored links that exist between stigma and violations of the human rights to water and sanitation are the focus of the most recent report to the UN Human Rights Council of the Special Rapporteur on water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque.

She defines stigma as “a process of dehumanizing, degrading, discrediting and devaluing people in certain population groups, often based on a feeling of disgust.” It is a deeply entrenched socio-cultural phenomenon which lies at the root of many human rights violations and results in entire groups being disadvantaged. Stigma attaches itself to an attribute, quality or identity that is regarded as “inferior” or “abnormal” and is based on a socially constructed “us” and “them” divide.

During her missions, the Special Rapporteur witnessed how people in particular groups were systematically deprived of access to water and sanitation compared to the rest of society. Some of the people she met told her “we don’t count, we are seen as dirty, as a burden to society, we are unwanted, labelled as criminals, abnormal or impure,” de Albuquerque told the Council.

Stigmatized groups do not only experience exclusion, but find themselves in a situation that is perceived as legitimate and justified by society, sometimes even by authorities. ”I met with authorities who considered that perpetuating this “us vs. them divide” was justified,” she said.

Furthermore, exclusion from access to water, sanitation and hygiene services creates a vicious circle and reinforces the stereotype of uncleanliness.

In caste-based societies, Dalits, for example, are systematically excluded from water and sanitation provision because they are considered “impure” or “polluting” to other castes, according to the report. They are subject to “untouchability practices” deeply rooted in society, but sometimes also institutionalized through State practice.

The Special Rapporteur noted that in order to realize the human rights to water and sanitation and provide access for stigmatized populations, States must uncover the veil of taboo and silence that accompanies many of these issues, and uncover the underlying power dynamics to combat prejudice and stereotypes.

She also urged them to develop and reform national laws and policies to ensure non-discrimination and equality for everyone. Such legislation needs to be accompanied by measures that can achieve changes in institutions, practices, patterns and customs.

The Special Rapporteur called on States to undertake a comprehensive study on stigma, to understand who is affected, why and how. States must develop targeted positive measures in consultation with marginalized groups in order to promote their rights and empower them.

“Stigma, as a process of devaluation undermines human diginity, thereby laying the ground for violations of human rights, including the rights to water and sanitation,” de Albuquerque said. “The full realization of the human rights to water and sanitation … cannot be achieved without tackling the stigma which lies at the root of many human rights violations,” she added.

5 October 2012


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