Ending sexual violence: A safe toilet is only one, small piece of the jigsaw

by 15th Jul 2014
Toilets at Azraq camp, a purpose-built camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees Toilets at Azraq camp, a purpose-built camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees © CARE/Johanna Mitscherlich

Syrian refugees fleeing the now 3-year-old conflict have faced rape during raids by security forces, and rape and sexual assault is so prevalent that women and girl refugees cited it as the main reason they left their country. Yet when they arrive to their supposed sanctuary and refuge, they are faced with the prospect of sexual violence and harassment at a communal toilet block.

Many women and girls in refugee camps and informal settlements have resorted to the indignity of digging a hole at the back of their tent – a disturbing testimony to a lack of basic programming and consideration for the needs of women and girls.

Meanwhile, the tragic rape and hanging of two teenage girls in Uttar Pradesh state, India, whilst they were defecating in public due to a lack of more dignified options, has triggered a flurry of news and op-ed attention on the links between appropriate sanitation and sexual violence.

Whilst well meaning, attention has largely focused on the lack of sanitation as the cause of the horrific sexual violence faced by many when they go to the toilet. The BBC’s report on 30 May, for example, appears to make the point that if only women and girls had a safe toilet, sexual violence would no longer be a problem.

Root cause: inequality

This viewpoint highlights the deficit in the understanding of the root cause of sexual violence – power differentials caused by inequality. As women and girls are the largest group to have least power in society, they are the largest group of people most adversely affected by rape, sexual assault, physical assault, denial of opportunities/resources/services, and emotional/psychological abuse.

Of course, there are a number of contributing factors and intersecting inequalities which play a part in this issue (disabilities, poverty, ethnicity, to name just a few). But essentially, sexual violence happens because of a lack of respect for the survivor’s fundamental human rights reinforced by societal norms that see women and girls as less equal than men.

Shocking statistics

According to rapecrisis, 85,000 women are raped on average in England and Wales every year; over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year; and 1 in 5 women (aged 16-59) have experienced some form of sexual violence. Shocking statistics indeed in a country which has safe, sanitary toilet facilities – right?

So it’s clear that a safe place to go to the toilet is not the absolute solution to the problem of sexual violence (not least because it ignores the prevalence of sexual violence perpetrated by family members, partners and those known to the survivor).

But it’s also clear – and has been clear for years – that a safe place to go to the toilet should be a fundamental starting point for tackling sexual violence (in particular, in mitigating violence perpetrated opportunistically).

Making the case

Rather disturbingly, at the recent Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict I heard a number of actors state that they were attempting to set up separate, lockable toilets in crisis situations. What was disturbing was that they were proudly stating this as if it were a new-fangled activity on the cutting edge of interventions. 

Instead, the international community should be hanging their heads in shame – that we are still having to make the case for the fundamental, basic provision of a safe place to use the toilet. For 20 years humanitarian and development practitioners have been trying to make building well-lit, lockable, centrally located latrines a basic activity. That’s 20 years of rapes and sexual assaults which have happened around toilet facilities, which could have been mitigated.

Following the guidelines

The IASC GBV guidelines have existed for nearly 10 years. These guidelines provide a comprehensive checklist for mainstreaming the protection of women, men, boys and girls from gender-based violence in humanitarian contexts, through programming in a number of core sectors – including WASH.  They also provide a two page ‘cheat sheet’ to make the information easy to process and put in place during emergencies. 

Despite the existence of these guidelines, there has unfortunately been little uptake of them. The humanitarian and development community need to work together to ensure that new materials developed don’t suffer from the same fate, and that WASH practitioners (and other sectoral practitioners) are motivated to embed the mitigation of sexual violence into their programming so that their programming does not provide further opportunity for sexual violence to occur.

Power and priority

However, this will not happen until: gender-based violence is seen as a priority within the cluster system; gender-based violence experts are given real power; and gender is no longer seen as an ‘extra’ but rather truly mainstreamed into programming from every sector. 

An example of this is that, again, at the recent Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, during experts’ day, there was an apparent need to ensure that participants on panel discussions were high up the food chain in organisations. However, this meant that those on the panel were not actually GBV experts, but rather, were three or four rungs up the chain of command. As a result, they discussed very basic response programming and the real experts were in the audience, wincing as the panel stated what was – to us – the obvious.

From this, a deduction can be made – gender-based violence experts are simply not high enough up in the hierarchy of the UN system to affect meaningful change. Experts are therefore left with a lot of carrot and no stick. This can be exemplified by the fact that the Global Gender-Based Violence Area of Responsibility (working group) – the leaders of gender-based violence work for the UN cluster system – currently only has two full-time members of staff.


But money talks and one glimmer of hope is the UK government’s Gender Equality Act. The act requires that DFID-funded programmes should ‘have regard’ to gender inequality and states that: “the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of providing assistance under that subsection in a way that takes account of any gender-related difference in the needs of those affected by the disaster or emergency.” 

This is another example of donor-driven gender mainstreaming – hopefully reviewed throughout the project management cycle, rather than only at the proposal stage, which often may not translate to project implementation if no ‘stick’ is provided and the ‘carrot’ has already been eaten.   

WASH toolkit

I am happy to be working for an organisation which in many ways is ahead of the curve on these issues and ensures gender sensitivity and transformational goals are a priority from the very top to the grass-roots level programming we support – in every sector. 

CARE is proud to be one of 26 co-publishers of a vital piece of kit for all practitioners working on WASH, gender-based violence, protection, health and education programming in development, humanitarian and emergencies contexts. The Violence, Gender and WASH toolkit – available here – is a multimedia toolkit which provides practical advice to mitigate increased vulnerabilities to violence which result from a lack of access to appropriate sanitation, hygiene and water services.  

Funded by the UK Department for International Development and developed by the SHARE Research Consortium the toolkit provides the reader with the knowledge needed to understand the scale and specific nature of the problem. Used in conjunction with programming which targets long-term behaviour change surrounding gender norms and inequalities, the toolkit is a really useful resource. 

I just hope that people actually use it this time, and that in another 20 years, the international community aren’t still talking about setting up separate lockable latrines.

Danielle Spencer

Danielle Spencer was formerly the Senior Humanitarian Advisor: Gender and Protection at CARE International UK, working primarily within CARE’s country offices responding to the ongoing crisis in Syria. Danielle also represented CARE International at the global GBV Working Group. Danielle has worked in gender-based violence, child protection and protection of refugee populations in humanitarian contexts for the past decade, across four continents. You can follow Danielle at @daniellewas or connect with her on Linkedin.