Sanitation, talent and progress

Living in Pakistan for more than one year, every Pakistani I have met proudly says, ‘there is no lack of talent in Pakistan’. At first I thought it’s a popular statement from a Bollywood movie but later a friend of mine clarified that it wasn’t the case, people say it quite often because they believe in it. As an Australian, I share cricket as a common interest with my Pakistani friends. After spending time working in Pakistan, I can confidently say that this is a valid statement not only for cricket but for every walk of life. Pakistan is a nation which has all the rudiments to compete with any other.

I have also observed that Pakistani parents are keen to see their children healthy, tall and strong and are very concerned about their children’s future. Yet stunting threatens the dream of every parent, especially poor parents – the dream of their children actively contributing to a strong and talented nation. A growing percentage of stunted children in Pakistan in the recent years will not reach their full mental and physical potential. Repeated episodes of diarrhoea due to poor sanitation kill 110 children every day in Pakistan. Those who survive but continue to suffer from diarrhoea in the first 1000 days of their lives, become stunted. Without any obvious symptoms, they cannot absorb intake of important nutrients due to chronic infection in their gut. The finding of the most recent national nutrition survey shows that more than four out of ten children under five years of age in Pakistan are stunted.

Poor sanitation is one of the major causes of diarrhoea contributing to child deaths and stunting, preventing future generations from acquiring their full mental and physical growth. . In simple terms, poor sanitation means that people do not have a basic and hygienic toilet to use. In fact 25 million Pakistanis openly defecate in their neighbourhoods on a daily basis spreading disease to the whole community. Open defecation is one of the unhealthy practices that human beings continue to sustain since Stone Age. Pakistan has the fifth largest number of open defecators in the world and is widely practiced in poor communities in rural areas and urban slums.

For poor women and girls, open defecation is more than a health concern. Lacking access to a toilet, they suffer indignity every time, and sometimes various forms of violence that are rarely reported. To avoid being seen in day light, most of these vulnerable women and girls seek concealment in the night that only heightens the risks.

The situation is not all bleak as there are encouraging trends. Pakistan has reached a tipping point and toilet use is fast becoming a new norm. Against considerable challenges, under the leadership of the government, Pakistan has reached its Millenium Development Goal for sanitation in 2015. In fact the trend of toilet construction and use has become more and more popular in the recent years. Some years back, open defecation was not even talked about, as it was regarded awkward to discuss such a disgusting topic. In recent years the development sector and government have made a deliberate effort to raise the issue of open defecation. The Government of Pakistan’s strategy, ‘Pakistan Approach to Total Sanitation-PATS’ has created a sanitation movement and people are constructing toilets themselves.

In order to keep the dream of a strong and talented nation alive in the eyes of every Pakistani and to save 110 children deaths every day, we need to get behind the sanitation movement. We need to empower poor and vulnerable communities to construct and use their own toilets. I encourage you to advocate to your government, service providers and civil society to upscale and increase investment in creating “Open Defecation Free” communities throughout Pakistan. We have to eliminate the unhealthy practise of open defecation and prepare a nation to compete with challenges of the modern world.

The importance of toilet use is recognized globally as a basic human right and November 19 has been declared ‘World Toilet Day’ by a resolution of the United Nation in 2013 (UN Resolution A/67/L.75). This day is dedicated to raising the profile of toilet use. This year while celebrating the third ‘World Toilet Day’ the focus is on bringing together years of research and case studies which demonstrate the link between sanitation and malnutrition. It is very important that each one of us in Pakistan is able to relate to the discussion on need for toilets in our daily lives, the future we want for our children and the action required at all levels.

Everyone has a role to play. Leaders, journalists, service providers, teachers, parents, private sector, civil society, academia and all those who share the dream of a strong and talented nation need to take action to improve sanitation that will contribute to the reduction of child deaths and stunting in Pakistan.

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