Helen Clark: Speech at World Assembly of Women on “Women’s Empowerment through Sanitation”

Aug 29, 2015

My thanks go to Japan’s Minister in Charge of Women’s Empowerment, Haruko Arimura, and the Government of Japan for inviting me to be part of this panel on Women’s Empowerment Through Sanitation. This is an issue of great importance to women and girls, and I am pleased to speak on the topic today as Chair of the United Nations Development Group representing all our agencies who work on these issues.

1    Why sanitation matters, especially for women and girls. Progress and challenges.

Basic sanitation is a matter of human dignity, and a fundamental human right . It is also critical for poverty eradication and sustainable development. That is why it featured prominently in the MDGs (MDG 7).

So how is the world doing on sanitation?

There has been a large increase in sanitation coverage globally, from 49 per cent in 1990 to 64 per cent in 2012.

But the global MDG target  of 75 per cent sanitation coverage by 2015  has not been met. Today, 2.5 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation, and one billion people still defecate in the open.

Progress across regions and within countries has been unequal.

Over ninety per cent of people in North America and Europe have access to improved sanitation, but less than fifty per cent of people do in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Urban-rural divides are striking. Nine out of every ten people who practise open defecation live in rural areas.

Women and girls who lack access to adequate sanitation experience higher rates of illness (MDGs 4, 5, and 6), such as urinary tract infections.

The lack of safe, private toilets at schools is one of the main reasons why girls miss school days or drop out of school altogether. As the UN Secretary General noted in his message for World Toilet Day 2013: when schools offer decent toilets, eleven per cent more girls attend.   

When women have to travel from their homes or workplaces to use a public toilet, they are vulnerable to violence. When they have to relieve themselves in the open, they often wait to do this until after dark, which puts them at greater risk of harassment or assault.

This is a particular challenge in a post-disaster or post-conflict context, when immediate recovery plans often do not take into account the sanitation needs of girls and women.

Economies suffer as well from poor sanitation - the World Bank estimates that economic losses from lack of access to sanitation amount to an estimated US$260 billion annually.

2.    The UN’s work on sanitation

The “glass half full” perspective on sanitation is that despite remaining challenges, significant progress has been made under the leadership of national governments with the support of many partners, including the United Nations.

The UN supports governments and communities around the world to raise awareness of the importance of sanitation and to improve access to it. This work takes many forms, from working with community groups and local health clinics to larger infrastructure projects, and strengthening relevant laws and policies.

In 2013 the Secretary General launched a Call to Action on Sanitation to end open defecation by 2025, and the UN’s efforts have coalesced around this vision.

Allow me to highlight a few examples of the UN’s work on sanitation:


o    UNICEF’s Community Approaches to Total Sanitation empowers local communities to develop local solutions, and since 2008 has led to some 26 million people across more than fifty countries being able to abandon the practice of open defecation. 

o    UNFPA works closely with health authorities to ensure that camps for displaced people have separate bathing and toilet facilities for men and women, and well-lit paths for the safety of women and girls.

o    Since 2008, UNDP’s innovative MDG GoAL-WaSH programme has assisted more than ten countries across all regions  to develop gender sensitive assessments and national strategies to ensure equitable access to water and sanitation.

A key component of UNDP’s work to improve governance in the water and sanitation sector is to promote women’s participation in decision-making. Experience shows that women’s involvement in sanitation programme design, management, and delivery improves sustainability and accountability.

3.    Sanitation and the post-2015 development agenda

Sanitation is a priority in the post-2015 sustainable development agenda being launched next month. SDG 6 calls for the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030.  

So - how can we work together to achieve SDG 6, and to ensure that progress on sanitation benefits women and girls, and helps underpin inclusive and sustainable development? I highlight three areas of importance:

First, political will: genuine political will, committed leadership, and firm commitments are needed. Governments need to place sanitation for all at the heart of their national development strategies, which in turn need to be supported by development partners, civil society, and the private sector. Each of us here today has a role to play.

Second, financing achievement of SDG 6: The cost of achieving the proposed SDG target of universal water and sanitation access has been estimated at $27 billion every year until 2030.  In global GDP terms, that is small, at .036 per cent.   Yet, current funding levels fall well short of that – only around $11 billion was committed to improved sanitation in 2012. Governments need to put in place enabling policy and regulatory environments which will encourage more investment in the sector.

Third, proven approaches to and tools for achieving universal access need to be promoted and applied. To tackle challenges related to sanitation and inequalities successfully, integrated approaches which cut across ministries and sectors are needed. This applies to development partners too:  we all need to address sanitation holistically, working across institutional silos.

In conclusion:

Strong partnerships will be essential to achieve SDG 6 on sanitation. Japan has very valuable experience to share on tackling these issues – this country went from having only six per cent of people served by a sewage system in 1958 to near complete coverage of improved sanitation fewer than thirty years later .

The UN development system looks forward to working with Japan to share its lessons with other countries on the road to developing comprehensive and sustainable sanitation systems which will improve the lives of women and men, girls and boys everywhere.

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