(The News Pakistan Op-ed): Out in the Open

By Geeta Rao Gupta, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director. Originally published in The News Pakistan

This week I attended the Pakistan Conference on Sanitation, PACOSAN II, which took place in Islamabad. Among the many interesting issues raised, one stood out as a serious problem for communities within Pakistan. I am talking about the problem of open defecation.

It is not a pleasant subject and nobody really likes to talk about it. However, it needs to be addressed because children suffer and die from it in Pakistan every day.

Too many people throughout the country do not have proper toilets. They are forced to relieve themselves under the open sky, and involuntarily cause a major public health problem.

Let me tell you a story from my childhood. When I was growing up in Delhi, we lived in a middle class neighbourhood that bordered a poorer community of cow herders and dairy farmers. Faeces on the ground and open drains were part and parcel of my environment, even though we had a toilet in my home and I lived in a modern neighbourhood. My mother constantly nagged me not to run barefoot on the streets. However, playing pithoo required me to run fast, especially to defeat the boys, and running fast was not possible in rubber slippers. I would kick them off and run barefoot on the street, picking up the ball from open drains if necessary, and sometimes accidentally stepping in the human waste that lay on the street.

I constantly suffered from intestinal worms and parasites that robbed me of the nutrition that my parents so carefully invested in for their children. It was a source of constant worry for my mother that I was painfully thin and looked malnourished. She took my condition very personally, but could do very little to control it, because of the environment in which we lived. Continue reading