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.