Toilets are a basic human right. This is an opinion piece, written by a member of our team, intended to communicate the official guidelines. Ensuring that toilets are kept open during the Covid-19 pandemic.   

A note from the writer: In the lead up to International Women’s Day, I wanted to share my observation that people who menstruate, those with female genitalia as well as lots of underrepresented groups in the UK are being let down. Please get in touch if you want to share how you’ve been affected. (kimberley.dobney@wase,co.uk). 

Organisations from all over the world, are developing decentralised solutions to serve the 4.2 billion people globally that don’t have access to safely managed sanitation (UNICEF, 2019). Treating sewage and faecal waste is just one part of the story. Menstrual care and management are often overlooked when it comes to sanitation and the UK is no exception.

There has been mass confusion regarding the guidelines on the opening of public toilets during the national lockdown. Venue owners and local authorities have not received clear instruction on how to safely open toilets. As a result, the majority have remained closed.

 The toilet closures have been devastating for many different people, for example; those experiencing homelessness who may have been relying on public facilities as their only toilet, those who suffer from illnesses which means they require constant access to toilets, key workers who are out of their home for long periods of time, the elderly who may have incontinence issues, those with smaller bladders who need to go more frequently, or people who are menstruating.

How does this disproportionately affect the menstruating sections of society and those with female genitalia?   

Those with female genitalia are more likely to experience Urinary Tract Infections than those without. If left untreated, the infection can spread up to the kidneys and bloodstream and become life-threatening. Holding in urine is one of the leading causes of UTI’s (NHS,2020).

During pregnancy, the need to urinate occurs more frequently because the growth of the baby puts additional pressure on the bladder (Pampers, 2021). One woman spoke to the guardian and recalled being pregnant during the summer when socialising in small groups outside was allowed (Guardian, 2020). She spoke of how she was essentially housebound because she knew there would be no toilet for her to use. Sadly, this is a common story.

As well as needing the toilet more often during pregnancy, four in ten experience urinary incontinence after giving birth. It can take between three to six months, sometimes even a lifetime, to regain complete bladder control (University of Colorado, 2019). This means that at any one time, a large proportion of society will be suffering this condition, and need frequent access to a toilet.

Menstrual care products must be changed at regular intervals to avoid illness such as Toxic Shock Syndrome, which in severe cases can kill. The frequency of changing products varies from person to person. Chronic illness, birth control and some medication can make it very frequent. Menstruation is a natural cyclic function, nobody on their period should be made to feel shame because their bodies have not been considered.

 Menstruation and pregnancy make a lack of access to sanitation facilities a big obstacle. In low- and middle-income countries, menstruation is often even more stigmatised, and the repercussions can be far more severe (Binti period, 2018). Menstruation can be the end of education if the school lacks basic menstrual care and sanitation resources (Lifewater, 2019). This means that the menstruators livelihood and prospects are directly affected. The significance of sanitation is evident globally. There are some great initiatives such as the Toilet Board Coalitions global ‘Women in the sanitation economy’ programme, which is accelerating solutions to tackle these issues.  It should be a question of serving everybody’s needs equitably and a realisation that not everyone’s needs are the same.

Example of sign present in many parks across City's in the UK that reads 'It's a park not a toilet, go home if you need to go'.

Example of a sign present in many parks across City’s in the UK

In summer in the UK, open spaces were one of the only places people could socialise. Thousands fled to parks, beaches and national heritage sites. When faced with no toilets in these places many turned to open defecation. Signs were erected in many public spaces stating that people should ‘go home if they need to go’ or words to similar effect. Open defecation is a serious issue all over the world as it spreads disease and negatively affects the surrounding communities. However, some may say this was an aggressive tone to take, especially to those excluded by toilet closures. It could be argued that a better solution would have been to re-open public toilets in a safe and controlled way. Therefore, ensuring that no sections of society were forced to ‘go home’.

So, what are the actual rules now?  

The government issued new ‘Guidance for the safe use of multi-purpose community facilities’ on the 5th of January 2021. The guidance states that ‘Public toilets, portable toilets and toilets inside premises should be kept open and carefully managed to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19’. A list of these measures to reduce the risk of transmission can be found here.

The question is, will people know these are the rules and will this be enough to reassure them that they can safely open their toilets?  

For this to be a yes, we all need to put pressure on local authorities and venues, ensuring that if they can, they abide by these guidelines. Nobody should be disadvantaged because of a lack of sanitation.

WaterAid does fantastic work globally, helping ensure that everybody has access to clean and safe sanitation. If you can, donate to help them transform millions of lives by improving access to clean water, toilets and hygiene. Follow the link to donate.

 

I wrote this piece to bring awareness to the state of sanitation in the UK during the pandemic. It’s an opinion piece reinforced with information found in my wider research. I am constantly relearning how to address social issues such as this in a way that is inclusive and fair. If you’ve found anything offensive or problematic, please message me and I’m ready to learn a better approach.  

Sanitation and its implications on society are central themes in my work. Firstly, in my role as Marketing and Communications Designer at WASE where we capture the power of waste. Then also in my role as Co-founder at Turn and Flow, where we are creating a new circular approach to menstrual waste disposal. Thank you so much for reading.  

26.02.2021 | Kimberley Dobney