Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

World Toilet Day

Madam Acting Deputy President Pratt, as you know, 19 November is World Toilet Day. Every year I try to come into this place and make some comment about the importance of clean water and sanitation to our community. It is not a topic we spend a lot of time discussing, but the purpose of the World Toilet Day is to raise awareness about that. Tonight I want to concentrate particularly on the importance of clean water and sanitation for women. Last month in this place our Parliamentary Group on Population and Development had a seminar on this topic, giving us the opportunity to hear from people about their own lived experience and then to look at what we can do as a community to respond to their needs. When you read the books and look at the considerations, these things do not seem real. But when we had Miriam Layton talk to us about the daily needs in her community, the people with whom she works and their safety issues, that brought it home in a very special way.

Millions of women and girls live without access to water, sanitation and hygiene. The impact this has both on their daily lives and on their long-term prospects is significant. Providing access to water and sanitation enables women to take control of their lives and has a multiplier effect across households and communities. The Millennium Development Goals process has already focused attention on the need for us as a whole world community to look at the need to address poverty. One of the core Millennium Development Goals is the issue of water and sanitation. We know there has been a major success, that access to drinking water has been achieved to a very high level across the world. However, in the area of sanitation, a basic need, something everyone in this community takes for granted, there are still great gaps and concerns about whether we will be able to meet the goal that we set as a world by 2015.

The issues around toilets are universal. One of the things I did when we were looking at this process was to look at the issue of women and their independence. There is such a well-known story about when the first women were elected to parliament here in the 1940s. When they came to take up their seats in what is now Old Parliament House-as you, Madam Acting Deputy President, and I have done in this place-there were no effective ladies toilets in the building and it took many years to actually have effective plumbing provided so that women, who were workers in our parliament, would have equal access. That is just a simple story about what happened in our country, as opposed to what could happen now in the world.

It is widely acknowledged that a lack of access to water and sanitation disproportionately affects women. In the city of New Delhi in India, there are 1,500 public restrooms for men and a mere 132 for women, leaving many women stranded. I have never visited that city but I know many tourists have been caught in a situation where they are seeking support in that area and are not able to find it. But there are people who go and study the access to sanitation across the world and make the counts so that they know about those 1,500 and 132. In rural areas women are often forced to travel deep into the surrounding bushland where they can avoid being seen by men. That process is one that we heard about in the seminar and it shows the absolute need for support for sanitation not only because of those physical and health impacts but because of the safety impacts. We heard horrific stories about the vulnerability of women when they are trying to go to the toilet in open space, where they become vulnerable to sexual assault, attack, theft and robbery.

That is something that does not cross our minds on a daily basis in Australia, but it is a reality for many women who are seeking basic support.

Women involved in a WaterAid study conducted in Uganda reflected on this and noted:

inadequate sanitation put a far greater burden on them as opposed to men.

Women most certainly bear the burden of collecting water for their families' use on a daily basis. There are stats provided saying that women spend many hours of their day in the onerous task of fetching water for themselves and their families. This can be eradicated so quickly by having effective sanitation projects and by having wells available so there is clean water for health and basic living. Globally it is estimated that women spend more than 200 million hours per day collecting water. In sub-Saharan Africa, a particular area of need, 71 per cent of the water collection burden falls on women and girls; the water takes 40 billion hours a year to collect. During a recent study conducted by Amnesty International in a slum in the Solomon Islands-which is one of the projects we heard about last week-over 100 women and girls were counted visiting one broken tap stand to collect water on a single afternoon, and only two men.

Poor access to water and sanitation affects women in three significant ways: it violates women's rights and places them in danger, as I said earlier; it jeopardises women's health; and it undermines women's educational and economic opportunities. The links between poor access to water and sanitation and ill health are well established and significant. At any given time, half of the hospital beds in low-income countries are occupied by patients suffering from water- and sanitation-related diseases. Almost 2,000 children die every day from diarrhoea caused by unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation. Unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene practices spread infectious diseases, including diseases in the gut and also the horror of trachoma. Some health issues have particular relevance to women, and poor access to water and sanitation creates and exacerbates these. It is hard to imagine what it must be like for mothers to give birth without enough water to clean themselves and their new babies. The lack of hygiene leads to sepsis, one of the major causes of preventable maternal death, leading again to the issues around the MDG and maternal health. Poor menstrual hygiene caused by the lack of sanitation and hygiene facilities at school and in the home can lead to reproductive health problems.

We heard the story of a young Zambian woman called Chimunya, aged 17, who has become the face of a campaign talking about her need to have her menstrual health looked after and to have privacy and safety. She talks about something that I do not think many of us would think about: that her dream would be to have a safe toilet in her school. When I was lucky enough to visit Africa last year with the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, we met with some young children who were at a school where Australia's AusAID program had helped to fund a new block of toilets; this was in Zimbabwe. The sheer pride and joy of those young children talking about how important it was to have their toilets at school, which gave boys and girls separate access so that there was privacy and safety in the process, brought home to me just how important it is to have something that we take for granted in schools-though, in many of the visits I have made to schools around the Building the Education Revolution program, some of the greatest stories I have heard have been from young children who have come to me to show me their new toilet block. Yes, they get halls; yes, they get libraries; yes, they get outdoor areas. But I can clearly remember one school where the greatest pride for the kids was showing me their new toilet block and how good it was. So there is that international link about where people-kids across the world-can join together and say water and sanitation are important to them.

Today we have the opportunity to lobby governments, and our government in particular, to increase the funding we give to the issues around water and sanitation. The Australian government has provided funding in previous years, and our AusAID programs-some of which I have visited-have done splendid work. We can acknowledge the work that has been done, but there needs to be so much more, because the need is great. When you see young women like Chimunya come forward and say how important it is to her, when you listen to Miriam talking about the issues of safety and when you see that an investment can yield so much response, it is important for all of us as a community to acknowledge on World Toilet Day the importance of sanitation and clean water and to say that we have achieved much in our country but, most importantly, there is much more that needs to be done, because women and children should not be in danger over something that we take for granted in our own country.