2011 was the year when the UN Human Rights Council took the human right to water and sanitation one step further, with recommendations on how to realize it. Does it mean that in 2012 the battle is over and that it is now "only" up to authorities to start realizing this right? Or, should I say rights? In fact, the distinction between whether this is one or two rights shows that there are still important debates to be held at the global level.
The UN special rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque has since her appointment constantly highlighted the right to sanitation, attempting to lift it out of the shadow of the water issue. International organizations and UN agencies have campaigned successfully since the 2008 International Year of Sanitation to break the taboo of sanitation issues so that we can talk frankly of the vital need to have a safe place to pee and poo. But in a legal sense, the right to water and sanitation has often been treated as one combined right. The UN human rights resolution from 2011 (A/HRC/RES/18/1), talks of "the right to safe drinking water and sanitation" - in singular.
Amnesty international however emphasizes that while the Human Rights Council appears to be treating water and sanitation as a single combined right, Amnesty International's view is that water and sanitation are two linked human rights. Amnesty's research from Nairobi's slum areas shows that women have to choose between not using a toilet at night or going to a public toilet and risking sexual violence - thereby pointing to specific problems related to a lack of sanitation and claiming it should be recognized as a distinct right.
Indeed it can be misleading to automatically connect sanitation rights with a right to water, for example there are many forms of dry sanitation that do not and should not require water. But perhaps what defines sanitation more than many other human rights issues, is the concept of human dignity that it evokes. For half of the world’s population, sanitation issues also include how to safely and hygienically manage menstruation. Within the sanitation field, this subject has so far been quite invisible and, in many countries, a taboo within the taboo as it were.
Menstruation management - the new taboo to break
Sanitation is crucial for the health and survival of men, women and children. But some of the most serious aspects of sanitation are more relevant to women and girls, and menstruation management is one of them. Menstruation is taboo in many countries, but the difficulty to manage it under poor living conditions have serious impacts on a woman's health as well as her social and economic conditions. Because access to separate toilets is lacking, approximately 30% of girls from poorer communities in South Africa do not attend school during menstruation. So not only do separate toilets at school enable girls to attend school in the first place, but more girls are likely to stay after puberty and during menstruation periods to complete their education.
Ms. de Albuquerque stresses, however, that "better sanitation conditions will not be achieved simply by building latrines and sanitary tanks". In her view, real changes in hygiene standards are only possible if the population is fully sensitized about improved hygiene practices. To this end, the South African Water Research Commission (WRC) in 2011 arranged a dialogue on menstrual management in support of the Sanitary Dignity Campaign for Women and Girls. In a report made together with The Department for Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Stockholm Environment Institute and the Water Information Network South Africa, the commission shows that 60% of women and girls in South Africa do not have access to traditional sanitary ware (pads and tampons). Forced to use "alternatives" such as rags, toilet paper, newspaper, leaves, "recycled" tampons / pads and disposable nappies. This has dire consequences for women's and girls' health and hygiene, productivity, as well as dignity - and, as the report concludes, confidence to be active members of a society.
Future steps within this field will be for the UN system to clearly define whether the right to sanitation should be singled out s a right on its own. Another challenge for the UN as well as for development partners will be to continue lifting menstruation management out of the shadows and integrating appropriate measures in development programming.