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Improving the lives of women and girls: sanitation as an issue for the ecumenical community

By: Charlotte Mildenberger, Lutheran Office for World Community

Last week during the United Nations General Assembly general debate week, I attended a side event titled “Keeping the Faith in Development: Gender, Religion and Health”. The side-event was co-hosted by UNAIDS, UN Women, UNFPA, (as part of the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Development), the World Council of Churches – Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, and Islamic Relief USA.

The event brought together some of the report authors, editors, and producers, as well as religious scholars, faith leaders and faith-based organizations, such as: Rabbi Burton Visotzky, Jewish Theological Seminary; Imam Shamsi Ali, president of Nusantara Foundation; Mr Luis Mora, UNFPA; Ms Sally Smith, UNAIDS; Mr Luca Badini-Confalonieri, Wijngaards Institute; Ms Gillian Paterson, Heythrop College, London, Ms Julie Clague, University of Glasgow, Mr Ulrich Nitschke, International Partnership for Religions and Sustainable Development (PaRD) and Ms. Safira Rameshfar, Baha’i International Community.

The reports address the taboo issues faith communities encounter when seeking to address sexual and reproductive health challenges, and propose theological and practical responses that simultaneously respect the tenets of faith traditions. The event explored areas of conflict and the “faith-full” ways to resolve them. The participants were invited to put forward recommendations for action to help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

This symposium launched three reports examining the intersections and areas of contention between health, human rights and lived theology:

- Religion, Women's Health and Rights: Points of Contention, Paths of Opportunities (a joint UNFPA - NORAD Paper).

- Dignity Freedom and Grace: Christian Perspectives on HIV, AIDS and Human Rights (Paterson and Long, 2016) is published by the World Council of Churches.

- Promoting good health & good conscience - the Ethics of Using Contraceptives (Wijingaards Institute).

During the Q & A section, I was shocked to learn that there is only one toilet for women in a remote village of 16,000 people in in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Leaving the event, I could not stop thinking about it and did some research. I have since learned that of the world’s seven billion people, 2.4 billion people do not have improved sanitation. 1 billion people still defecate in the open. Poor sanitation increases the risk of disease and malnutrition, especially for women and children. 1 in 3 people on this planet still don’t have access to a clean and safe toilet; 1,000 children die each day due to poor sanitation.  Women and girls in many parts of the world are living out there right now under these terrifying circumstances. It’s also a matter of safety – women and girls are getting raped while seeking sanitation.

One toilet for women and girls in a village of 16,000 people is an example of the dire need to build toilets and create safe spaces for women and girls. It is a call for the full implementation of SDGs especially SDG6 “Ensure access to water and sanitation for all”. Better sanitation supports better nutrition and improved health, especially for women and children. Let’s do something about it! We can’t wait while a lack of access to sanitation affects health, education, gender equality, nutrition, the environment. #wecantwait

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