World Toilet Day recognized by UN: US network spreading word.

collaboration, community, homeless, international, sanitation, toilets, united nations

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Today – 19 November 2013 – is World Toilet Day. World Toilet Day is being officially recognized by the United Nations this year, and a host of organizations are simultaneously working on sanitation efforts worldwide.

Why is World Toilet Day important? Many people both in the United States and around the world have no safe places “to go.” Sanitation saves lives on a daily basis and in disaster situations, and those most oppressed encounter largest challenges around access. Statistics are stark. 2.5 billion people have no adequate sanitation. Preventable sanitation-related illnesses kill 1.5 million children each year. Around 1.7 million people in the US do not have indoor plumbing. Another 1.5 million people in the US live outside. This is a problem that affects many people in many places.

What is the history of World Toilet Day? The amazing Jack Sim, aka Mr. Toilet, started the World Toilet Organization 19 November 2001. He used the acronym WTO (think World Trade Organization) to raise awareness about the lack of sanitation globally. World Toilet Day was inaugurated the year after the anniversary of WTO founding. Starting in 2013, the UN designated 19 November World Toilet Day. Jack Sim is traveling to NYC for a myriad of celebratory events.

What can you do? What can you learn? Many admirable organizations are involved in sanitation. PHLUSH compiled a massive list of information and advocacy tools from many of them here. There are UNICEF posters and a Toilet Trek game, an interactive website by WASH United, and much more. Two US grassroots organizations – west-coast PHLUSH and east-coast The POOP Project – are also trying to raise awareness about US toilet issues. See ToiletsUSA : Why We Need to Speak Out on the PHLUSH website. Take The Pooper Pledge on The POOP Project website. Finally, if you are so inclined, you can follow #ToiletsUSA, #WorldToiletDay, #CelebrateTheToilet, #LiftTheLid, or #wecantwait on Twitter. May every day be World Toilet Day.

“A nation is judged by the compassion it shows its weakest citizens.” – Bruce Springsteen

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Empowerment and Gender Equality in Water and Sanitation: What does it mean? What does it matter?

collaboration, community, development, general, homeless, international, ngo, participatory management, sanitation, united nations

If you know of work done by non-profit or governmental organizations globally, you have likely heard the words –  empowerment and gender equality. Groups worldwide use these terms in apparent pursuit of more equitable water and sanitation projects ranging from entrepreneurship to provision. When first exposed to these terms during my master’s studies in 2010, I became intrigued with understanding how empowerment and gender equality related to more participatory water and sanitation projects. Yet after conducting research for my master’s project [Empowerment and Gender Equality for Water and Sanitation in Rural India: Two Case Studies], it became clear these terms were used by organizations very differently. While some organizations might imply a borewell for water results in empowerment, others said participating on a decision-making committee results in empowerment (and so on).

Amidst this array of disparate definitions, it appeared to me such terms still might have some capacity to be somewhat useful conceptual approaches for more equitable water and sanitation projects. So when I received the opportunity this past summer to attend two different workshops focusing on empowerment and gender equality, I took the chance. In July, I attended a United Nations program in Geneva to see how different UN entities employed (or failed to) these concepts. In August, I traveled to UCLA for another workshop focusing on empowerment in public health.

After attending the UN Graduate Study Program, I began to wonder if there might be better discourse for equitable water and sanitation projects globally. Study program participants heard over twenty seminars from UN agencies – International Labor Organization, International Organization for Migration, Inter-Parliamentary Union, UN High Commission for Refugees, UN Human Rights Council, Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UN Office at Geneva, UN Secretary General Envoy on Youth, UNAIDS, UNCTAD, UNDP, UNEP, UNFPA, and UNICEF. Many of these organizations talked about how they focus on women internally and externally, but it was often difficult for them to describe how they incorporated a true gendered-approach into their practices (e.g. focusing on power differentials between all people not just looking only at women). It appeared some of them were stuck in a paradigm of second-wave feminism when more transnational feminist approaches are now critical. What this means in basic terms is that most UN agencies use a “universal woman” approach (i.e. a “western woman” approach) instead of looking at larger nation-state and economic structural disparities.

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Above Photo: Author of blog post is located in left front row in white short-sleeve button-down. UN Photographer.

Studying at the UCLA Global Health and Empowerment workshop provided a chance to dig more into the theory behind empowerment in various disciplines. We read everything from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Naila Kabeer’s Resources, Agency, and Achievements, and Jane Parpart’s Lessons from the Field. See entire syllabus here. This course covered a variety of critical and conservative empowerment theories in global health and global development (that word again) literature. My final grant-proposal project focused on sanitation and health issues in the US for two reasons: 1) the global north/global south binary is highly disconcerting to me, and 2) we have dire sanitation needs here that also demand attention. One of those sanitation needs is sanitation with/for those living outside in many cities in this wealthy nation. My proposal “Together for WASH: Pilot Program for Participatory and Gender-Sensitive Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene with Unhoused People in the United States” is currently undergoing final review. Here’s a sneak peek:

The long-term goal of this proposal is to improve measurable public health outcomes linked to WASH among unhoused people (men, women, and children) living in group camps furthering their upward social mobility and capacity to participate in social change. The objective of this proposal is to pilot low-cost and scalable WASH solutions coupled with participatory WASH programs in two group camps in two US cities. This pilot program is gender-sensitive using gender-specific solutions (e.g. eco-urinals and a menstrual hygiene management program) and gender-sensitive participatory techniques (e.g. community dialogue about gender burdens of WASH and representative participation). This pilot program uses an arts-based approach to give unhoused people a venue to highlight vulnerability in water and sanitation while communicating with policymakers to influence greater social change. This pilot program will lead to engagement in both individual and collective processes of empowerment resulting in critical consciousness among unhoused people in the realm of WASH.

So the jury is still out on water and sanitation development sector usage of terms like empowerment and gender equality.  It is not that empowerment and gender equality approaches are incompatible with true participatory water and sanitation programs. It is just that: 1) empowerment water and sanitation projects should be bottom-up instead of the top-down, 2) empowerment and gender equality definitions should be clearly outlined prior to development of water and sanitation programs, 3) larger structural frameworks and power structures have to be taken into account (e.g. examining how someone can experience empowerment on a local scale while being disempowered on the global economic scale), 4)  it is critical to consider scale when thinking about empowerment and gender equality in water and sanitation, 5) empowerment as part of international-development discourse might actually reinforce oppressions, and 6) alternative conceptual approaches for examining and participating in equitable water and sanitation programs could include liberatory or autonomous frameworks.

Author’s Postscript: If you would like to read more about empowerment theories from multiple disciplines, please check out this shared Google Drive list put together by colleagues and myself.

Water and Toilets for Humans w/o Homes

architecture, community, drinking water, homeless, sanitation

On a recent trip to my hometown, I traveled two hours north to visit a close family member living on the streets. He is chronically homeless, and it deeply saddens me he is unable to accept housing assistance. Someone chronically homeless is an “individual with a disabling condition who has either been continually homeless for a year or more or who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past 3 years.” There were around 650 thousand people homeless one night and 1.59 million people spent one night in a shelter in 2010, and about 17 percent were chronically homeless. Reasons such as high unemployment and/or substance abuse problems contribute to homelessness, but people without homes still have basic human needs. Basic needs that include water for drinking and washing and toilets to pee and poop.

Before the trip, I gathered basic living provisions for Nate (pseud.): backpack , raincoat, shoes, water bottle, and soap. But I worried “where would he fill his water bottle?” and I wondered “where would he use his soap?” While buying him lunch, I gingerly asked if he ever uses shelters. He doesn’t. He echoed what numerous other people feel, “shelters are dirty, dangerous, and packed.” This older ethnographic report by Hill and Stamey found the same sentiment. Nate essentially has nowhere to get water, take a bath, or use the bathroom. I was distraught to probe further, and I didn’t want to insult his dignity. But I now wonder more than ever before. What are US communities doing to provide water and toilets for humans without homes?


Above Photo: Leroy Allen Skalstad on Wikimedia Commons

There are few water and toilet options for individuals experiencing homelessness. For water, folks may use a public drinking fountain [not always nearby], sinks in a public bathroom [not always nearby], drinking fountains at a shelter [often not open during daytime], sinks in a private bathroom [could be kicked out], or ponds and streams [possibly contaminated]. For toilets, folks may use a public toilet [not always nearby], a toilet in a shelter [often not open during daytime], a private toilet [could be kicked out], or go outside [could be arrested]. It’s a challenging situation for those on the streets. I didn’t tell him I noticed when we took him to lunch, but the first thing Nate did was use the restaurant bathroom.

US cities need to do a better job ensuring ample public drinking water, hand-washing, and toilet facilities for those experiencing homelessness. There are organizations and cities addressing the issue, but more research needs to be done to inventory, categorize, and prioritize options nationwide.

Here are a few brief examples. The I am Waters Foundation provides bottled water to shelters, missions, and community homeless organizations. Central Oregon Veterans Outreach gives 5-6 gallon containers to homeless camps and returns to fill them with water weekly. Some shelters such as this one in Arizona host bottled water drives during summer months. Portland built six innovative Portland Loos. Another organization in San Francisco is proposing similar small bathrooms except with toilets that separate solid from liquid wastes. Several cities like Grand Rapids and San Diego installed portable toilets in the past.

The handful of water and toilet projects listed above are steps in the right direction, but sadly few of these options are available in Nate’s town. In addition, some are short-term solutions to long-term problems. It gives me hope that one academic architecture program is realizing the importance of design for those without homes hosting a Rethinking Shelter event, but it’s up to all of us to better understand water and toilet options available for those without homes and to advocate for appropriate solutions. In conjunction with PHLUSH, we’ll compile more information on this issue in future posts.