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Prisoners of Daylight

A woman who was knocked down at night time by a fast moving motorbike, unfortunately died on the spot. Many who knew her said her death had been looming but could have been avoided. No one could have understood the basis for such insinuations without gaining further insight. Fortunately for me though, I ended up getting the full details from someone who knew quite a lot about the deceased woman and her family.

Informant: The deceased woman had just finished relieving herself in that weed ridden gully over there and was knocked down by a fast moving motor bike while crossing the high way back to her residence, which is over there (a high density neighbourhood, just across the highway). Unfortunately, she died before she could get any medical help. I blame no other person than her husband, for her death; and I am sorry to say too that I feel no pity for him.

Me: I don’t understand, if her house is just at the other side of the road, why didn’t she just wait to get home to relieve herself? Why would she even take such risk of stepping into a gully to ease herself at such period of the day? And why would you blame her husband, but he wasn’t with her when it happened? Why would you trade sympathy for blame? It is only natural and humane for one to be sympathetic, especially with a man who had just lost his wife under such a pathetic circumstance.

Informant: Let me just save you all the questions and give you a good glimpse of the whole story. I know the woman and her husband personally, because their house is directly behind my uncle’s own. The man, his wife children and relatives occupy a building, which he put up in the neighbourhood over 20 years ago. Attached to his residence are five additional one room apartments which he lets out to tenants. But would you believe that there is no single toilet in the entire building? They only have a makeshift bathroom constructed with now rusted iron roofing sheets.

Me: So sorry to cut in here, are you telling me that a landlord, his family and tenants have been living in a house within an urban setting for over 20 years without a single toilet facility? Not even the most affordable pit latrine……..how in the world have they been managing their fecal and urinary wastes, all this while?

Informant: Now you’ll get to understand why like some of their neighbours, I had no sympathy for the man over his wife’s death. Like I told you, they live directly behind my uncle’s house. You wouldn’t want to imagine what they had turned the space between their house and my uncle’s own into. Of course, their toilet, drainage and waste dump! Now that the place had become so filthy beyond use, the late woman, her family members and their tenants found the gully a haven for relieving themselves. Tell me then, is it not the man that brought about his wife’s death? Why in the world would he prefer to build five tenement rooms at the expense of providing at least a toilet to secure his family’s sanitary sanity, safety and health? By not providing his wife with a safe place to ease herself, do you think he esteemed her? Her death is unseemly or better still derogatory, and I maintain my stance of blaming it on her husband!

For a few seconds I was speechless as I couldn’t agree any less that the woman wouldn’t have died in such manner, if her sanitary needs had been decently met. Definitely, if she had survived, she would have experienced great humiliation knowing that people had become aware that she practiced open defecation. I sure wished I could hear out the bereaved man as to why he did not prioritize the provision of sanitary facilities for himself, his family and tenants. What about his guests? Were there other houses in neighbourhood that lacked sanitary facilities? Was the late woman content with the sanitary situation in her home? Much as I don’t have answers to most of these questions, at the moment, my verdict is that issues surrounding the woman’s death are a shocking revelation that women in Nigerian cities (urban areas) are to a very large extent, equally exposed to sanitation problems reminiscent of their rural counterparts. Similarly, that beyond people’s individual shortfalls when it comes to making provision for their sanitary needs, the existence of buildings that do not have sanitary facilities definitely calls to question the implementation of Nigeria’s public health laws, as well as the activities of my professional colleagues working with the agencies charged with the responsibility of approving building plans.

Sanitation usually involves the hygienic disposing or management of human and animal waste, waste water and refuse, the management of disease vectors and the establishment of washing facilities for personal and domestic use. It involves both behaviors and facilities which work together to form a hygienic environment. The safe collection and treatment of human waste and other various wastewaters protects drinking water sources and eco-systems goes a long way to reduce the biological contamination of water, thus preventing water borne diseases. Basic sanitation, that is, access to sanitary facilities is no doubt the most essential aspect of women’s sanitation needs. A current estimate of people in the world who are in need of basic sanitation is put at 2.6 billion, and it is quite alarming that women and girls account for more than two thirds of people who live without access to basic sanitation. According to a 2007 World Bank Report, sanitation coverage in sub Saharan Africa is only 37%. In rural Africa, only a scanty 28% of people have improved access to sanitation. The number in urban areas is 53%, which while improved, is still unacceptably low. At least 300 million Africans have no access to basic sanitation and hygiene, a number that continues to multiply and has risen by over 150 million since 1990. Without sanitation, populations are vulnerable to a number of common yet preventable diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, guinea worm, intestinal worms, schistosomiasis, trachoma, typhoid and paratyphoid.

The mortality rate due to poor sanitation in Nigeria calls for serious attention, with approximately 5-20%, resulting from disease such as diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, paratyphoid, guinea worm, etc (Nigerian Sanitation Policy (NSP), 2004). The objective outlined in successive Sanitation Policy is for all Nigerians to have access to adequate, affordable and sustainable sanitation through the active participation of Federal, State and Local Governments, NGOs, development partners, private sector, communities, households, and individuals. The following milestones were set in the 2000 Policy: the initial target was to meet the national economic target of improving service coverage from 40% (quite questionable) to 60% by the year 2003, extension of service coverage to 80% of the population by the year 2007, the extension of service coverage to 100% of the population in 2011 and sustenance of same beyond that year. Interestingly, the 2004 maintained the same objective but the targets were amended thus: Improve coverage of sanitation to 60% of the population by 2007, Extension of sanitation coverage to 65%, 80% and 90% of the population by 2010, 2015 and 2020 respectively; achieve and sustain 100% sanitation coverage of the population by 2025. It is sad to note that the same objectives and milestones set in the Sanitation Policy document are only just repackaged year in year out, to go with current date and demands, without indicators for monitoring progress or achievement(s) recorded. Is it just a case of old wine being poured into new wine skin, in the name of having a National Sanitation Policy? Though the objectives, components and strategies are laudable, there are no evidences to show that any of the set targets had been met in line with the stipulated framework and instance. Also, gender has not been mainstreamed into the document and this goes a long way to show that the policy did not recognize the gender differentials of sanitation needs. If truth must be told, the NSP has not in any significant way addressed the sanitation needs and aspirations of many Nigerian women, meaning it is still a far cry from attaining its impressive targets.

It is categorically not a dignifying, healthy and safe practice for a woman to always hold back for so long until she can find a secluded place to defecate, ease herself or clean up when she is menstruating. It could really make the life of a woman awfully unbearable! Can you imagine the experience of a woman or girl who is menstruating where there are no toilets available? Or a heavily pregnant woman having to repeatedly walk a distance to the bush to ease herself. And may be too the bizarre cultural practices that deprive women and girls the use of toilet facilities when they are menstruating. What about post natal recovery without access to well-situated toilet facility? Evidences, abound to show that the basic sanitation needs of Nigerian women and girls’ are often overlooked, at all levels; in the home, local community and society at large. Little wonder then why in their attempt to access sanitation many of them are robbed of their dignity, interdependence, and the potential for development. They are too frequently, exposed to diseases and dangers (risks of physical and sexual assault, animal attacks and accidents) which are more often than not, detrimental to their health, their education, community status, livelihoods, political will and survival. Medical discoveries have revealed that waiting so long to defecate leads to increased chances for urinary tract infections, chronic constipation, and psychological stress. It is also estimated that about 44 million pregnant women in developing societies, have sanitation-related hookworm infections that pose a considerable health burden.

Particularly within the high density neighborhoods, urban slums and rural communities in Nigeria, many households and schools lack toilet facilities thus making hygiene situation abysmal. For many who have access, it is more often than not, inadequate (not properly managed, unclean, very unhygienic and devoid of the much needed privacy) and demand remains high. It is not uncommon to find large numbers of people relying on a single traditional latrine. To get a much needed privacy, most women without access to basic sanitation or those who cannot stand the poor state of available facilities often resort to meeting their needs in the open, often in the dark. They must wait for nightfall to get to a secluded area in order to defecate in private. It is also not unusual to find women and adolescent girls taking their bath or relieving themselves in the open, mostly in the wee hours of the morning or dead of the night. This happens around homes, hostels, campsites, or secluded areas of open fields, thus making such environment very filthy and unhealthy. Of course, when human waste is left around, water sources are easily polluted and there is high potential for the spread of germs, vermin and diseases. Again, women are the ones who are mainly predisposed to picking up such parasites and infections and spreading same; because of the traditional roles they play as custodians of domestic responsibilities (fetching water and fuel wood, washing, cleaning, cooking, care giving etc). Consequently, the lack of basic sanitation facilities is a major source of worry and burden for Nigerian women as they are the ones tasked with dealing and coping with water-borne diseases in their families; and this to a very large extent affects their ability to engage in economically and socially productive activities. There is therefore no gainsaying that safe collection and treatment of human waste and women’s access to sanitation is vital to the achievement of an individual, family and community’s physical, mental and social well being.

The sorry state of the sanitation sector in Nigeria is a result of many years of men’s control as they have been the ones involved in all the planning, construction and decision-making. Many of the interventions have scarcely tackled the privacy, choice and location issues that affect are prioritized by women. By excluding women from both formal and informal processes of decision making in the sanitation sector, the many problems that women, their family and communities are already grappling with will be persistently compounded. A study of 88 water and sanitation projects in 15 countries carried out by the International Water and Sanitation Centre found that found that projects designed to run with the full participation of women are more effective and sustainable than those that are not. Women are more competent when it comes to ensuring that individual, family and community needs are met, hence, they should be given the chance to fully express their aspirations and needs in the sanitation sector. Involving women in the sanitation sector will benefit everyone because women are the best self, family, peer and community educators. With all hands on deck, lives can easily be saved through better access to sanitation and improved basic hygiene.

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