11th December 2018
Behind the scenes: Reinvented Toilet
By: Georgia Sanders
I had the incredible experience of working on the Reinvented Toilet campaign, a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation project that was launched on World Toilet Day. A few years back, The Gates Foundation set a challenge for engineers, scientists and technology pioneers around the world to create a new toilet that ran off no water, needed little to no electricity and killed pathogens to protect the user. As a bonus, the toilets were to produce a bi-product such as fertiliser, electricity or even just personal safety at the most basic level. Since the challenge was issued hundreds of individuals and companies have been working and now there are prototypes in the field all over the world and people are already benefiting from this innovation. Safer sanitation is happening! I felt extremely lucky to meet the communities that were genuinely being transformed by new developments in sanitation engineering alongside all entrepreneurs, scientists and community leaders who were involved along the way. I knew the scale and seriousness of the campaign, but I didn’t imagine I would find myself considering the matter of gender equality along the way.
The issues that arise from unsafe sanitation has devastating implications for millions around the world and especially for those living in vulnerable conditions. It became clear to me that women face serious negative impacts from effects of bad sanitation facilities, and it broke my heart to talk and learn of these women. I heard stories of women that actively dehydrated themselves to avoid needing the toilet and consequently openly defecating. They spoke of diseases I knew were easily preventable and even neighbours who had been sexually harassed because they lived remotely and didn’t have the correct safe facilities available.
Issues that are unacceptable.
During the filming of the project, I also saw the positive role women played in challenging the expected norms of their gender. It was amazing to see female scientists and engineers being given the opportunity to design and build these new technologies and work on such pioneering work that can change peoples lives for the better. I was so impressed with their dedication to working on a project that meant taking on jobs that were classed as ‘not for women’, and breaking those social and cultural taboos about what women ‘can and can’t do’ for a job.
We met a young woman who was site manager of a new and top of the range waste management plant. When speaking to her about her experience at the plant she had only good things to say and jumped at the chance to work in such an innovative industry. She managed the workforce, operated the machines, oversaw the payments system and the security. She was empowered, confident and had the most genuine smile that went from ear to ear. She also brought a few of her friends on board to work at the plant all of whom were delighted by their responsibilities and the respect they had around the town and the company.
We interviewed a doctor working in a Coimbatore hospital in India. She worked in sanitation studies and gave an excellent insight on the health of women and how much improvement there had been to many lives. She stressed the need for safe sanitation for women and the increased risks they face with a lack of safe facilities. The consideration and knowledge she had on the subject was truly compelling and it was an honour to hear her talk. She ran a department out of a university hospital and oversaw a mixed group of research assistants. I honestly loved seeing a group of young, talented professionals both men and women working for such an impressive female doctor in a society where high ranking female doctors seemed rare in the medical system.
I felt lucky to interview a primary schoolgirl in China who told us that the technology behind the newly installed toilet at her school both excited and intrigued her. She had never considered working as a scientist, but seeing the toilet in place at her school inspired her to consider science as a future profession. That first sight of something so pioneering and transformational being placed at a school had the power to inspire a young child! Who would have thought that this could be a “bi product” of sanitation facilities? That sort of positive influence totally inspired me and made me feel proud to meet so many women from different backgrounds and different ages.
After meeting these engineers, scientist, teachers and sanitation managers, I came to the understanding that it wasn’t only the women that were working on the frontline that made an impact on me, but also the level of consideration the entire industry placed on women’s health in general.
The devastating consequences of unsafe sanitation is being tackled with the introduction of these new toilets. In many communities girls feel pressured or ‘shamed’ into staying home during their menstrual cycle. The introduction of safe sanitation places an emphasis on menstrual health for young women, making sure girls attend school during their period and reducing disease and increasing life expectancy.
This entire project was an incredible experience from start to finish, filled with highly dedicated people that I feel honoured to meet and talk to. They introduced me to the idea that something as simple as introducing a small amount of dignity into the everyday lives of thousands of women could have such a profound effect on employment, education and personal empowerment in some of the most vulnerable communities.