Insufficient Toilets Pose Risk to Women and Girls

By Thu Thu Aung 23 August 2017

YANGON – One and a half million people in Myanmar do not have access to a toilet, creating health issues that disproportionally affect women and girls and put them at risk of sexual assault, according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

Three quarters of Myanmar households have direct access to a toilet that hygienically separates human contact with excreta while 16 million people have access to some kind of latrine, according to a 2014 census report released by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) last week.

One and a half million people have no access to a toilet at all and defecate and urinate in the open.

“For women and girls who have to relieve themselves and manage their menstrual hygiene in the open or in a shared facility, this makes them particularly vulnerable, and puts them at risk of harassment and physical assault, especially after dark,” said UNFPA representative of Myanmar, Janet Jackson.

Women and girls in urban slums, rural areas, and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps are the most at risk.

Campaigners in India, where 770 million people require better facilities, have been addressing the link between poor toilets and sexual assault for a number of years, but the issue remains shrouded in silence in Myanmar.

Daw Nang Pu, a spokesperson for the Kachin-based Htoi Gender and Development Foundation, told The Irrawaddy she had witnessed sexual harassment of women and girls traveling to and from shared toilet facilities.

Incidents are underreported, she said, as the women and girls often do not speak out due to shame and fear.

Vice chairwoman of the Mon Women’s Organization Mi Kon Chan Non told The Irrawaddy: “Sexual harassment and physical assault can occur in public and crowded areas, but women are more at risk when they are alone and it is dark.”

Women in Mon State answered the call of nature together when there was no toilet available in their home or village, she said.

“Nowadays, most families have toilets on their land, but it is still far from where their homes are,” she added.

National League for Democracy lawmaker Daw Phyu Phyu Thin, who represents Yangon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township in the Lower House, told The Irrawaddy she had heard reports of sexual harassment and rape when women and girls visited shared toilets during festivals in rural areas.

She said that even in Myanmar’s commercial hub Yangon, some people don’t have access to toilets in their homes and share public toilets—including in four wards of Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township—and urged Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein to address the problem in his urban development projects.

“It’s not just about safety but also dignity and basic human rights,” the lawmaker said.

Kachin youth activist Mai Mai told The Irrawaddy that female IDPs faced frequent health problems relating to a lack of sanitation and privacy when managing menstruation.

Inadequate or unhygienic toilet facilities disproportionally affect women as a lack of waste disposal or running water can lead to infections and other complications with menstrual hygiene.

At Kachin IDP camps in Tanai Township in Kachin State and Kutkai Township of Shan State, 100 people typically share two or three toilets, she said.

“Although adequate toilet facilities will not stop sexual assault and rape, the lack of safe facilities makes women vulnerable and is a daily challenge,” she added.

While more than two thirds of Myanmar households (69.5 percent) have access to non-contaminated drinking water, 16 million people in Myanmar, primarily in rural areas, do not have access to safe drinking water.

Worldwide, diarrheal diseases that are commonly spread by contaminated water kill more children than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined.

“There is an urgent need to address Myanmar’s housing challenges holistically,” said Jackson.

“We need to look at all aspects of living conditions, including health, sanitation, electricity, communications and safety.”

“Space is also a key element to dignified housing. People need homes that allow for privacy for families as well as for intimacy between couples,” she added.

The findings come from the 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census Thematic Report on Housing Conditions and Household Amenities, published by the Government of Myanmar and UNFPA.

An estimated 1,090,000 Rohingya in Rakhine State, 69,700 people in Karen State and 46,600 people in Kachin State were not included in the census.