Stockholm, 3 September 2014 – Speakers at an event organized by UNICEF around World Water Week in Stockholm challenged the way international development partners and governments currently approach talking about open defecation and highlighted the role social media platforms can play in creating social norms, particularly in a world dominated by the power of connectivity.
People find talking about open defecation difficult and this is especially so in India where issues of caste, religion and generational norms prevail. For an issue that is too difficult for swathes of India’s population to even mention, the statistics are shocking. Just under half of India’s population - 595 million people do not use a toilet. The negative impact contributes to 61 million stunted children under five, needless deaths due to diarrheal disease; loss of privacy and dignity for women.
Sue Coates, Chief Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), UNICEF India opened the session. “If we want the 1 billion people without access to a toilet to change their behaviour, we need at least another 2 billion people to be talking about an issue that impacts all of us,” she stated.
Rose George, journalist and author of The Big Necessity, who moderated the discussion said that sanitation is a human right, an issue that cannot be ignored anymore. “We all are part of the problem and, thus, cannot turn a blind eye to it. Unless we talk openly about crap, the stigma will continue and children will continue to die from something as easily preventable as diarrhoea. This cause needs more champions to talk shit,” she said while praising the role of communication and social media platforms to promote societal and individual change.
And this is exactly what the Global Poverty Project is doing: growing the number and effectiveness of global citizens to achieve the public, business and political commitment and action to end extreme poverty. “When individuals take meaningful action, we can change the policies and practices that contribute to prevent people from access services. We are sure that the lack of access to sanitation will not be ended by charities, businesses or governments working alone. As citizens, we have a role to play. We have to raise our voices and trigger the change we want to see in society,” explained Stephen Brown, UK Director at the Global Poverty Project and Global Citizen.
Communication and media campaigns for sanitation are not new, especially in countries where open defecation is a common practice. However, campaigns that only target those without a toilet do not necessarily bring the issue to the rest of society.
“It is time to think differently. To end open defecation we need radical ideas that contribute to challenge the status quo and turn sanitation into an aspiration. Imagine the power for change if those who have access to toilets, actually did stand up and take action,” pointed out Thorsten Kiefer, Founder and Executive Director of WASH United.
While understanding the potential of using social media, Eddy Perez, Lead Sanitation Specialist with the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) of the World Bank raised some concerns. “There are some risks and attitudinal bottlenecks associated with challenging business as usual, particularly when talking about a sensitive issue like sanitation. Will the use of social media help us to broader and exponentially expand dialogues on taboo topics such as defecating in the open? If we take for example the Take Poo to the Loo campaign, developed in India by UNICEF, I suspect that those defecating in the open, around half of the Indian population, do not have access to smart phones or computers, so they cannot be part of this dialogue. Therefore, if we only use digital media, wouldn’t be contributing to increase the gap? And also, how do we measure results?” he asked.
Linda Patterson, Program Officer in Global Policy and Advocacy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Francesca Covey, Strategic Partnerships Manager at Facebook, Internet.org, also participated at the event and talked about the different communication initiatives implemented in their organizations.
At his closing remarks, Sanjay Wijesekera, Chief of WASH, UNICEF, agreed on the challenges ahead about using innovative ways to communicate around open defecation but highlighted that to achieve results we have to do things differently. “Last May, the United Nations Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson launched a pioneering campaign to drive progress on sanitation. For this to happen, we cannot continue doing business as usual,” he concluded.
UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.
About the Take Poo to the Loo campaign
In late 2013 UNICEF India launched Take Poo to the Loo -poo2loo.com - asking India’s youth to make a noise about open defecation. This was done via the power of communities on social media; where friends talk with and listen to trusted friends. Going beyond the limits of traditional public awareness campaigns, in to new virtual communities and networks and back again, poo2loo has made a stink in India and across the world. You can find more information here: