Human Rights Watch | “Going to the Toilet When You Want”: Sanitation as a Human Right

This report provides a factual foundation for understanding the distinct nature of the right to sanitation and denigration of human dignity related to its violation by describing contexts in which women, men, and children struggle to realize their right to sanitation. It draws from more than a decade of Human Rights Watch research that highlights the wide variety of abuses and obstacles people encounter in trying to perform the simple act of safely relieving themselves with dignity, including deliberate acts of abuse or discrimination. Although not an exhaustive review of the right to sanitation, this research shows that the deprivation of the right to sanitation can exacerbate multiple human rights violations. This report looks at sanitation in:

  • Schools
  • Detention, Prisons, and Jails
  • Immigration Detention Facilities, Migration and Displacement Camps and Centers
  • Health Facilities and Residential Facilities for Persons with Disabilities
  • Workplaces
  • Households

Our key findings include:

  • Many governments have not fully respected, protected, or fulfilled the right to sanitation in the context of public facilities, particularly in cases where people are deprived of their liberty and therefore, are completely reliant on the state for such services.
  • In many contexts, women and girls and persons with disabilities face unique challenges, including difficulties in managing menstruation. •Women, girls, and transgender persons sometimes face harassment or violence when there is no safe facility.
  • Poor or no access to sanitation often occurs in the context of other human rights abuses and compounds their effects. For example, poor sanitation in the context of compulsory drug detention centers exacerbates the human rights impact of the arbitrary deprivation of liberty.
  • Participation in public affairs is a key human rights principle, yet government failure to consult with communities, particularly marginalized minorities, and allow for meaningful participation in decision-making around sanitation may compound discrimination and exclusion in access.
  • Government efforts to progressively realize the right to sanitation to the maximum of available resources may be undermined by gaps in accountability or corruption at the national or local level.

While this report does not document every sanitation-related human rights concern, it illustrates how the right to sanitation can be undermined in a variety of contexts through government action and inaction. It is intended to complement the research and analysis of the right to sanitation by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and others.

Our research shows that barriers to realizing the right to sanitation go beyond the availability of resources. Discrimination—based on caste, gender, disability, old age, or other protected status—may prevent some people from accessing adequate sanitation. Corruption or mismanagement may reduce the impact of government investments in sanitation. Authorities might not act to ensure that people in their care or custody can access facilities. As states and donors work toward commitments made under Goal 6 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, more is needed than commitments to new resources. Instead, efforts toward meeting Goal 6 should include greater action to address the barriers to realizing the right to sanitation in all spheres of life. While this includes increasing resources—through budgets or development funding—it should be paired with a commitment to eliminate barriers to sanitation in those spheres under the control of government, to address discrimination, and to ensure human rights principles of accountability and participation undergird investments in sanitation.

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