Access to sanitation and hygiene -The Nation

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The ghastly truth of rural Pakistan is that around 25 million people, mostly in rural areas, do not have access to water and sanitation (WASH) services. The issue becomes grave with the lack of toilets. Ending open defecation, I believe, is the first step in ensuring adequate WASH services to the people of Pakistan. While males in the rural setups can go anywhere to attend nature’s call, the same is not less than a challenge for women.

The intrinsic right to seclusion and safety while performing bodily functions is blatantly denied in villages—especially to women. Sadly, many in Pakistan, particularly in rural areas, do not think of access to sanitation and hygiene as a matter of right. Due to the lack of latrines, the daily risks women and girls face range from experiencing sexual harassment to violation of privacy, from catching contagious diseases to meeting an accident. All these risks make the already worse situation further grim.

While comparing the recent statistics with those from the past, Pakistan has made strides since 2015, when at least 40 million of the total population had no access. Today, the figure quoted above is halved, thanks to the efforts of the government and its partners and the NGOs sector.

While providing 25 million people with toilet facilities might seem a tough task, things are definitely improving. On one hand, the government in collaboration with different donor agencies is working. On the other, we see a shift in communal behaviours as well.

Such is the story of the women of Chak 74, a small village in the district of Sargodha. Not long ago, the women of Chak 74, like women in other rural areas of Pakistan, were lacking access to toilets, especially public latrines. During their working hours on fields, the lack of sanitation facilities barred them from using the rights to sanitation and privacy. However, hearing about their stories and the problems they were facing made the people of Chak 74 realise that the females needed proper sanitation facilities. The people of the village decided to take collective action. Building sanitation facilities in the fields and nearby became a priority for the villagers. The construction of toilet spaces for females in Chak 74 has left a positive impact on the social and economic position of women in the village. The days and nights of these women became easy, and their lives suddenly held a plethora of opportunities.

Nevertheless, the same shift in community behaviour is not visible everywhere. The state has to make interventions in areas where open defecation is not seen as a problem. Prime Minister Imran Khan, in one of his 2018 speeches vowed to end open defecation by 2023. While the goal might seem an ambitious one, it is not impossible to achieve. The government needs to prioritise the issue by implementing “Pakistan Approach to Total Sanitation (PATS)” in letter and spirit.

Undoubtedly, the situation related to WASH services, in general, and toilets, in particular, has improved manifold today from that in the 1990s. But the goal to end open defecation by 2023 has yet to be achieved. Providing the last 10 percent of the population with latrines in less than two years means that the government has to allocate adequate funds on the district level. And at the same time, the government needs to develop a strategy to combat and prevent the risk of relapse into open defecation.