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“Going to the Toilet When You Want” – Sanitation as a Human Right

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“Going to the Toilet When You Want” – Sanitation as a Human Right

20th April 2017


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“Nayla” (a pseudonym) was a 52-year-old teacher from Daraa, Syria, when anti-government protests began in March 2011. In 2012, she agreed to transport a military defector and was detained by government soldiers at a checkpoint. The soldiers shot at her car and beat her. They took her to a military building where she was held in solitary confinement and denied food and water for two days. She was transferred to another cell and detained for nearly seven months. When Nayla reflected on her detention and subsequent release, she said, “You feel you will never be free again – that you will never see your family, never go to [a proper] toilet. It is a joy just to go to the toilet when you want.”

It is not surprising that in reflecting on the trauma she experienced over those seven months, Nayla associated her longing for a toilet with freedom. The manner in which a person is able to manage bodily functions of urination, defecation, and menstruation is at the core of human dignity. In her report on sanitation, the then-United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation stated, “Sanitation, more than many other human rights issue, evokes the concept of human dignity.” She continued, “Consider the vulnerability and shame that so many people experience every day when, again, they are forced to defecate in the open, in a bucket or in a plastic bag. It is the indignity of this situation that causes the embarrassment.”


Lack of sanitation is a pervasive human rights concern globally that impacts other rights, including gender equality. While not an exact marker of the status of the right to sanitation, as of 2015, 2.4 billion people around the world are estimated to be using unimproved sanitation facilities, defined as those that do not hygienically separate human excreta from human contact. Lack of sanitation is not only an affront to an individual’s dignity and rights, but endangers the rights to the highest attainable standard of health and to safe drinking water of other people because of the contaminating nature of human feces. Nearly a billion people practice open defecation—which has been linked to malnutrition, stunting, and increased diarrheal disease, among other negative impacts.

Sanitation does not turn solely on the presence of a toilet or latrine. It encompasses the entire system for the collection, transport, treatment, and disposal or reuse of human excreta and associated hygiene. Breakdowns or barriers at any point within the system can lead to devastating impacts on people’s lives and rights.


Though not explicitly stated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the right to sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has reaffirmed that the right to sanitation is an essential component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and “integrally related, among other Covenant rights, to the right to health, … the right to housing, … as well as the right to water.” According to UN General Assembly Resolution 70/169, the right to sanitation entitles everyone “to have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, and socially and culturally acceptable and that provides privacy and ensures dignity.”

Despite the fundamental relationship between human dignity and the right to sanitation, national and international programs that address water and sanitation invariably invest more in water than in sanitation. The UN Millennium Development Goal’s target (2000-2015) of halving the portion of those without access to safe drinking water—a concept not consistent with the definition of the human right to water—was formally met in 2010, yet progress on the sanitation target still lagged far behind. Billions of people are currently without access to improved sanitation. Even where access has improved, large disparities exist between those who have access to sanitation and those who do not, with nearly half the world’s rural population lacking access.

In development contexts, sanitation and water have long been linked as a congruent right, while the human rights community has interpreted them as distinct rights.The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in September 2015, confirmed the separate but related nature of water and sanitation, calling for availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. It includes independent targets for each, and provides a framework for monitoring and action related to sanitation. Though not defined consistently with the full definition of the right to sanitation, Target 6.2 calls for access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2020 and for an end to open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.

A similar human rights interpretation of the separate but interrelated nature of the rights to water and sanitation has now been recognised by states in UN General Assembly Resolution 70/169, adopted in December 2015, which for the first time recognised the distinction between the human right to water and the human right to sanitation. By adopting the resolution, the General Assembly clarified that the rights to water and sanitation, while linked, are separate from one another and have distinct features, although remain part of the right to an adequate standard of living and are interrelated to other human rights.

As a distinct right, intimately related to the right to water (and other human rights, including the right to health) and similarly derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to sanitation should be accorded the same level of importance as other components such as food and housing.

This report provides a factual foundation for understanding the distinct nature of the right to sanitation and denigration of human dignity related to its violation by describing contexts in which women, men, and children struggle to realise their right to sanitation. It draws from more than a decade of Human Rights Watch research that highlights the wide variety of abuses and obstacles people encounter in trying to perform the simple act of safely relieving themselves with dignity, including deliberate acts of abuse or discrimination. Although not an exhaustive review of the right to sanitation, this research shows that the deprivation of the right to sanitation can exacerbate multiple human rights violations.

Report by the Human Rights Watch

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