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Dispatches: UN Resolution Enshrines Rights to Clean Drinking Water, Sanitation

At least one in three people on this planet lacks access to a toilet or other facility that safely manages human waste. Nearly one in seven practices “open defecation.” Access to improved sanitation was one of the most off-track goals of the Millennium Development Goals, a set of targets designed to lift people out of poverty that governments agreed to back in 2000, and which expire this year. This is all a polite way of saying that billions of people around the world are exposed to human feces – theirs or someone else’s – on a daily basis.

A latrine used by approximately 800 students at a high school in Haiti’s Central Plateau. © 2014 Human Rights Watch

This isn’t just gross – it’s an issue of human rights. Open defecation doesn’t only spread disease, it can also expose women and girls to harassment and gender-based violence and – as women often go out later at night and walk further away – even to animal attack. It’s been linked to stunting and malnutrition in children. And, girls who can’t safely use a toilet or latrine also can’t manage their menstruation with dignity – creating an obstacle to their education for several days every month. Poor sanitation and wastewater management make access to clean drinking water more challenging to attain, as human waste contaminates water sources.

Five years ago, the United Nations General Assembly recognized that water and sanitation are a fundamental human right. In a new resolution passed today, the world body took a significant step towards addressing the challenges related to sanitation. It recognized that water and sanitation are each human rights, interrelated but independent. The General Assembly also expressed concern about the impact water and sanitation has on women and girls and the advancement of gender equality.

It didn’t stop there. The General Assembly also provided guidance to countries about their obligations by defining the right to sanitation – that it entitles everyone, without discrimination, to have physical and affordable access to sanitation in all spheres of life that is safe, hygienic, secure, and socially and culturally acceptable. It should also provide privacy and ensure dignity.

Now, as governments work towards a new set of goals, called the 2030 Agenda, the resolution gives people the world over a new tool for demanding dignity and the chance to just use a bathroom in security and safety. That means with less chance of illness, death, harassment, or violence. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask, but has been out of reach for far too people many for far too long. 

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