Growing up in a clean and safe environment is every child’s right. Access to clean water, basic toilets, and good hygiene practices not only keeps children thriving, but also gives them a healthier start in life.
The benefits of having access to an improved drinking water source can only be fully realized when there is also access to improved sanitation and adherence to good hygiene practices. Beyond the immediate, obvious advantages of people being hydrated and healthier, access to water, sanitation and hygiene – known collectively as WASH – has profound wider socio-economic impacts, particularly for women and girls.
School and childhood should go hand in hand, but many children in low-income communities with no access to WASH are unable to attend class because they are sick with a diarrhoeal disease or, particularly in the case of girls in rural areas, because they have to spend large parts of each day fetching water for their family.
For children who are in school, the situation may be no better than at home: globally, around a third of schools have no safe water supply or adequate sanitation, leaving children dehydrated and less able to concentrate, and forcing pupils to use inadequate latrines or go to the toilet outside in the school grounds.
For adolescent girls, the presence of a safe water supply and clean, functioning, private toilet facilities can be the difference between dropping out and getting an education. Furthermore, hygiene education at school can begin a lifetime of better health for all children.
A person without access to improved drinking water – for example from a protected borehole well or municipal piped supply for instance – is forced to rely on sources such as surface water, unprotected and possibly contaminated wells, or vendors selling water of unverifiable provenance and quality. For many communities, water sources are usually far from their homes, and it typically falls to women and girls to spend much of their time and energy fetching water, a task which often exposes them to attack from men and even wild animals.
Without improved sanitation – a facility that safely separates human waste from human contact – people have no choice but to use inadequate communal latrines or to practise open defecation. For women and girls, finding a place to go to the toilet outside, often having to wait until the cover of darkness, can leave them vulnerable to abuse and sexual assault.
In the immediate environment, exposed faecal matter will be transferred back into people’s food and water resources, helping to spread serious diseases such as cholera. Beyond the community, the lack of effective waste disposal or sewerage systems can contaminate ecosystems and contribute to disease pandemics.
In some parts of the world there is little or no awareness of good hygiene practices and their role in reducing the spread of disease. However, it is often the case that even when people do have knowledge of good hygiene behaviour, they lack the soap, safe water and washing facilities they need to make positive changes to protect themselves and their community.
There is the potential to save the lives of the 829,000 people who currently die every year from diseases directly caused by unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene practices, and we could also drastically reduce child malnourishment, and help alleviate physical and mental under-development. Today, 50% of child malnutrition is associated with unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. Women and girls would have the facilities and knowledge to be able to manage their menstrual cycles in safety and dignity. Similarly, during pregnancy, childbirth, and post-natal care, medical staff, expectant mothers and their families will be better equipped to ensure newborn children are given the safest and healthiest possible start in life.