EYEVIEW - Potty jokes no laughing matter

World Toilet Day wasn't a big deal in Canada, but the issue is a big deal in some countries

Missed World Toilet Day? Don't worry, not much happened here in Canada. In Hamilton, retired teacher John Smith hosted a "potty party" to raise money for pit toilets in Kenya.

It's the day toilets came out of the water closet. Euphemisms such as restroom, loo, biffy, crapper, and john were set aside. Scatological humor was shunned and embarrassing bodily functions were discussed. There was frank talk of toilets.

Let's call a spade a spade. Let's call a spade the simplest toilet tool. Just dig a hole and bury the deposit. It's an improvement over the practice of one-third of the world's population. The standard procedure for 2.6 billion people is open defecation: wait for the cover of darkness and set off into the field; dump the foul contents of their household bucket in an open drain when no one is looking; squat on a plastic bag and throw the contents in the local dump (an improvement over the practice of some dog owners in Kamloops who leave bags of dog crap alongside the trail).

The money that John Smith raised on World Toilet Day went towards the construction of 66 latrines in Kenya. They're simple toilets made of cinder blocks with locking doors and fly-screened windows; the kind of thing commonly called an outhouse. While Canadians may turn up their noses at the primitive structures, they're life-altering in Kenya where school attendance has dramatically improved. Faced with no toilets at schools, girls would walk home to relieve themselves. With no privacy during their menstrual periods, they never went to school at all. "We didn't realize sanitation was such a huge world issue until we got into it," says Smith.

It's degrading for women who have no access to toilets. While men can relief themselves against a wall, women are either humiliated by squatting in public or risk sexual assault by seeking isolation. Rather than face embarrassment or risk assault, girls and women are forced to limit the amount of water they drink with the possible hazards of dehydration, kidney damage, and infection that results from reduced urine flow.

Let's speak the plain truth about "water related" diseases like the cholera epidemic now spreading through Haiti. The problem is not water but the lack of toilets. Cholera-laden feces are fouling the water in open sewers and finding its way into the food chain.

The problem is not isolated to Haiti. The lack of toilets leads to diarrhea which is the leading cause of death in children worldwide. Diarrhea kills an estimated 5,000 a day; more than AIDS, TB and Malaria combined. It's a major cause of malnutrition. Weakened victims are more susceptible to other diseases such as pneumonia. One-quarter of all pneumonia deaths in children are linked with diarrhea.

Lack of toilets is not just a matter of life and death; economies of developing countries are also affected. The World Bank estimates that lack of sanitation costs as much as nine per cent of their gross domestic product which stifles struggling economies and suppresses growth that could lift millions out of poverty. For every dollar spent on sanitation, eight dollars of increased productivity and reduced health care costs could be realized.

World Toilet Day presents challenges to developed countries as well. In Canada, it's a matter of equity or "potty parity." For decades, women have complained about the lack equal access to toilets. The problem is obvious when you go to a big event in the Interior Saving Centre. Men breeze in and out of the toilet while women queue forever.

While toilets for both sexes have equal floor space, it's obvious that you can put more urinals in the same space as a toilet cubical. The problem is compounded by the fact that women take twice as long. So for parity to exist, twice as many toilets would have to be built as for men and the floor space for women would be about four times as large.

Then there is the problem of gender equity. Transgendered people face harassment and ridicule when they visit the toilet appropriate to their gender but opposite to their perceived sex. Onlookers are aghast and offended when apparent men or women visit the wrong toilet. One solution is unisex toilets so that the wait would be equal for men and women and everyone in-between.

World Toilet Day is gone but the issues remain.

David Charbonneau is the owner of Trio Technical. He can be reached at dcharbonneau13@shaw.ca.

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