Are Toilets a Human Right?

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 64/292, which “Recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights”.

Does that make toilets a human right?  

The concept of a right to sanitation is concerned with its necessity in order to realize the other human rights, like those included in this list (e.g. health, nutrition, dignity and an adequate standard of living). The UN High Commissioner for Refugees emphasizes that adequate sanitation is necessary for maintaining access to clean water, which is critical to the rights to quality of life and health.

Making sanitation a human right requires that it apply universally (i.e. to everyone without discrimination). This equality is especially important for women, as menstruating women are stigmatised in many cultural practices.

For instance, the rural Nepali practice of chaupadi requires that "impure" menstruating women remove themselves from contact with other people. They are often forced to stay in sheds outside the house, or in other unclean environments, which often expose women to the elements. If sanitation is formally acknowledged as a human right, it would supersede cultural norms that guarantee the equal humanity of all people – a right applies to everyone, always, even when they’re menstruating.

In fact, the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Council also recently reaffirmed the human right to drinking water and sanitation with a specific focus on menstruation. It notes that women and girls’ inequality can be worsened by inadequate menstrual hygiene.

This Human Rights Council resolution and its 2010 resolution, which was adopted shortly after the General Assembly’s resolution mentioned above, indicate that States have the primary responsibility for ensuring realisation of these rights. Nepal’s interim constitution is fairly progressive in recognising the right to sanitation. Article 16 on the Right Regarding Environment and Health includes the statement that “Every person shall have the right to live in clean environment,” which includes sanitation and hygiene.  

Of course, moving from recognising to implementing a right isn’t the easiest step. It's worth noting that being a right does not obligate States to provide toilets. Infrastructure is critical to realising adequate sanitation (and large scale infrastructure requires State or major communal action), but the right doesn’t actually require toilets for all. Recognition of sanitation as a right focuses on the need for environmental hygiene to achieve health and an adequate standard of living.

Rather than mandating toilets, the right to sanitation obligates States in ensuring that there is an environment conducive to realising sanitation services that are available, acceptable, accessible, affordable and of sufficient quality, as noted by Catarina de Albuquerque, the previous Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. That doesn’t require a flush toilet in all circumstances but may require hardware or infrastructure of some type, although de Albuquerque also makes clear that individuals are expected to contribute to realising this right. States are obligated to enable this right only if limiting factors (like poverty) prevent people from achieving this standard on their own. Just as a side note – Manavta’s toilets aren’t your conventional flush toilets anyway!

So if toilets aren’t a right, what does a rights-based perspective bring to the issue?

It’s a call to action. It provides a legal framework that allows people to demand change, especially marginalized groups – rights are for everyone, not just the privileged. In Nepal, marginalized individuals include women and rural communities, populations that have been a focus of Manavta’s work.

Some groups in Nepal have started demanding, and achieving sanitation services and have used the language and obligation of human rights to do so. While States aren’t obligated to provide toilets, the language of rights allows prioritisation of sanitation services like water and wastewater connections. There is still significant progress to be made, and plenty of community-level work to be done. The right to sanitation is far from being realised in Nepal, which is why Manavta and other like-minded organisations continue to use toilets to lay the groundwork for health, dignity and an adequate standard of living.


ThankBack Thursday

ThankBack Thursday

Carolina Hum

This week we're feeling especially thankful for Carolina Hum, the grooviest musical duo formerly based out of Ottawa, now out of Toronto. These two brought their most beautiful and haunting harmonies to our fundraiser at Chapters Rideau last March, bringing with them a small army of fans. Thanks Alie and Laura for the support and great tunes - we can't wait to work with you again soon.

If you're in Toronto this Saturday, come out and see these two along with The Fox and the Moon and The Maladies of Adam Stokes play at The Cameron House with doors opening at 8:30pm.

The ‘H’ in WASH

Having a place to poo is important. However, behaviour surrounding toilet activities, particularly hand washing, can be just as significant as having a toilet to begin with.

The WASH sector (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) often focuses on the hardware of toilets, pipes and drains, but access to hardware isn’t everything. The ‘H’ is a key part of improving health through WASH, because without hand washing people will quite literally continue eating shit. Fecal matter travels easily to hands after defecation and, without hand washing, can then travel easily to food or other surfaces.

The story by stats

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 gram of poo (think the weight of a paperclip) can contain 1 trillion (1,000,000,000) germs. Hand washing can prevent spreading those germs and decrease illness: evidence shows that proper hand washing can reduce incidence of diarrhea by 30%. With 500,000 children dying each year from diarrhea, related to poor quality water and sanitation (WaterAid, n.d.), hand washing (with soap!) is a simple step for reducing those deaths.

Hand washing can also contribute to reducing children’s absence from school by decreasing the amount of time they’re sick. Programs that promote hand washing, provide soap and put in place peer hand washing champions have been shown to lead to 54% fewer days of school absence. And that sickness isn’t limited to diarrhea – other health issues, like respiratory illness, skin infections, and intestinal worm infections, can also be decreased with hand washing.

Taking action

Of course, knowing about the risks of dirty hands and actually washing them isn’t the same thing.  Behavior change is a huge part of preventative health, and it’s often the most difficult step to implement. Just ask any smoker or chocoholic. That’s why Manavta’s engaging educational programs, which encourage positive hygiene-related behavior change among students, are a key part of what we do.  

So next time you finish up your daily constitutional or hang out with your pet chicken, don't forget to wash your hands before you make food or hold hands with that special someone!

ThankBack Thursday

ThankBack Thursday

We're spending today reflecting on how grateful we are for all of the people who have supported us through this crazy toilet adventure since 2012. It amazes us that THOUSANDS of people are keeping tabs on the work we're doing - via Facebook, Twitter and this website! We've been working with Grad Students at McGill and York Universities (in Montreal and Toronto respectively) who are writing about our approach to safe sanitation and its effect in empowering communities and the women so integral to them.

Please continue to engage with us through social media, our website or by emailing us at - and share our pages with your friends and colleagues, help us continue to grow!

Thank you, thank you, thank you.