PHILADELPHIA — Toilets may not make for a glamorous subject, but they’re critical to global health. On Monday, Nov. 19, students from the University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration with the Philadelphia Global Water Initiative, will be drawing attention to their importance by recognizing World Toilet Day.
Catherine Bouvier, Rupal Prasad and Iliana Sepúlveda, all students in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science, are leading the efforts, encouraged by Stanley Laskowski, a lecturer in the Master of Environmental Studies Program and founder and president of PGWI. The three students are also PGWI volunteers.
“The big thing we’re trying to accomplish is to bring awareness to the issue that there needs to be more solutions to sanitation problems,” said Prasad, a student the MES program, which is part of the College of Liberal and Professional Studies based in the School of Arts and Sciences.
World Toilet Day was first observed in 2001, when organizer Jack Kim saw a need to spread a call for action to improve global sanitation. The statistics regarding sanitation, particularly in developing countries of Africa and Southeast Asia, are concerning. Worldwide, 2.5 billion people lack reliable access to toilets. Nearly 1.5 million children younger than 5 die each year from diarrheal diseases that can be linked to poor sanitation. And poor access to sanitation facilities places a disproportionate burden on women and girls, who may be forced to travel long distances to use toilets, risking violence on their journeys. Girls may also skip school during menstruation out of embarrassment if they lack access to private restroom facilities.
Penn is observing World Toilet Day by aiming to increase knowledge about sanitation and the lack thereof around the world. Focusing their efforts on Hayden Hall, home of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, Bouvier, Prasad and Sepúlveda will display relevant information on a bulletin board and screen videos in the lobby for passersby to learn more. They are also putting together a newsletter related to World Toilet Day to circulate to the department’s students as well as contacts affiliated with PGWI.
Beyond this single day of action, Penn is home to other efforts to boost understanding of sanitation issues year-round. As it has in the past, Penn will host next year’s PGWI’s annual conference, in April. The theme will be “Gender and Water: Leading Beyond the Burden” and will serve as an opportunity to “highlight and share best practices and solutions for the women, water and sanitation crisis.”
Conference partners include the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership at Penn’s Wharton School and wH2O, a peer-reviewed journal focusing on issues of women and water that was launched earlier this year by two students in Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies Program.
With all this attention, the subject of toilets and sanitation should be taboo no longer, Prasad said. “It’s not a very pretty topic to talk about, but it needs to be out there.”