In May, in the rural village of Katra in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, two teenage girls left their home at night to search for a place to use the toilet. They never came home. The girls were gang-raped, murdered and found the next day hanging from a tree.
As an organization that fights poverty, strives to advance opportunities for women and girls, and works to improve access to water and sanitation, this crime is particularly heartbreaking. No girl, woman, man, or boy should have his or her safety and security threatened by lack of a toilet.
The connection between access to toilets and personal safety is not widely understood in the United States, where most of us have a clean, safe, private place to flush away evidence of our most basic necessities.
But we are in the world’s lucky minority. Nearly 65% of people across the globe lack a safe, private toilet within a few steps of their home. And while rape is one risk that results, there are many more. They include cholera and diarrheal diseases, reduced educational attainment for young girls, stunting and malnutrition among infants, and, of course, the enduring, deep distress caused by being forced to do in public what you want to do in private. A person who is forced to defecate publicly is also forced to put the health of her or his community at risk.
We must not oversimplify. Many complex factors led to the deaths of these girls and millions like them. It’s not simply a lack of toilets putting people at risk of violence. Nevertheless, their deaths make it painfully apparent that access to sanitation is essential to personal and collective well-being. We need both to call attention to this fact and act on it.
In the U.S., the Water for the World Act ensures that we continue to allocate foreign assistance to increasing sustainable access to water and sanitation all over the world. It also ensures we allocate money wisely, monitor the progress of the programs funded, and ensure improvements to water and sanitation are sustainable.
The bill is simple and important, but it is in danger of failing in the House of Representatives when it comes up for a vote as soon as this week. We can stand up in honor of those two girls in Uttar Pradesh, and millions of girls like them, and help ensure that everyone in this world has access to a toilet and peace for at least a few important minutes every day. Let your representatives know that the Water for the World Act is important to you and to us as a nation.
No girl should be at risk of rape or violence in her own community. Ever. And no government should be complacent about rape or violence. Improved access to sanitation and water facilities around the world won’t end violent attacks on women, but they can meaningfully improve both the physical safety of girls and women, as well as the overall health of communities.
Stephanie Ogden is a senior water policy advisor for CARE. Headquartered in Atlanta, CARE is a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. CARE places special focus on working alongside poor girls and women because, equipped with the proper resources, they have the power to lift whole families and entire communities out of poverty. To learn more, visit www.care.org.