A recent post on Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog—entitled “Poop is Funny, But It’s Fatal
”—highlights a UNICEF
World Water Day video about the necessity of destigmatizing human waste. Bacterial infections caused by contact with human waste kill 1.5 million people every year
—most of them children. The stakes are high. The film uses kids and humor—two good ingredients for education through entertainment—to explain the importance of sanitation. The film emphasizes that although we may not like talking about feces, urine, toilets, and the like, we need to because the fact that 2.6 billion of us lack adequate sanitation is a fundamental threat to human health, productivity, and dignity
. It’s a short film—YouTube friendly—and these are complex links, but they are key to understanding the need to invest in available technologies
The UNICEF video rightly emphasizes the additional costs of lack of sanitation, noting that girls often won’t attend school if there isn’t adequate sanitation. The benefits of attending school longer include higher educational attainment, of course, but also the less-obvious knock-on effects: These young women are more likely to know and assert their rights in the household; they are more likely to earn more income; they often choose to have smaller families and better-spaced births, and are consequently able to concentrate their resources on the well-being of those children; their children are more likely to be better-educated—the list goes on.
The video leaves unspoken another sensitive topic: When adolescent girls begin to menstruate, they often either choose not to come to school or their parents (usually the father) pull them out of school if there aren’t “adequate” and separate facilities. This timing often correlates with young women’s assumption of greater responsibilities in the household, but it is also about the stigma associated with menstruation.
I’ve seen the connections between sanitation, education, and women’s equality have tremendous resonance with what is presumably a primary target audience of the UNICEF film—leaders in donor, government, and civil society communities who can mobilize resources. This example illustrates the urgency of overcoming the stovepiping that plagues so many development efforts, which often tackle education, economic growth, sanitation, and human health in isolation from one another, rather than in an integrated fashion. This year, the International Year of Sanitation, we should all make an effort to step out of our comfort zones and speak out about these “taboo” topics.