All these unused toilets – who are we building them for?

Julie Lafrenière General, Protection, Refugees and IDPs, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

Going to the toilet is one of the most dangerous things you can do as a woman living in a refugee camp. That’s why we’re conducting research into the use of lighting to promote safety around latrines and wash facilities, for World Toilet Day Kerry Akers and Julie Lafrenière share the key findings so far.

These shocking quotes are from people we have been speaking to on the issue of safety around toilets in camps.

‘He set her on fire and burned her to death for using the toilet at night’

‘She was raped in the dark, on the way to the toilet, so did not even see who did it’

‘Women are forced into prostitution, there in the tents right outside the toilet’

Our research into lighting and latrines

‘women living in camps navigate the threat of sexual and physical violence routinely in order to use the toilet’
Global research being conducted by Oxfam and WEDC indicates that women living in camps navigate the threat of sexual and physical violence routinely in order to use the toilet. The threat is so serious that many women choose not to use the toilet altogether, especially at night. This means women defecating outside, rather than in the toilet, it means women develop painful infections, it means the quick spread of cholera, in camps with thousands of people living cheek by jowl.

Oxfam works to make women safer, to overcome suffering and to challenge inequality. In order to do this well, we have to listen to the women we work with and understand their needs. One thing women repeatedly ask for is lighting. The humanitarian sector has understood for some time that lighting impacts safety and whilst this has been included in guiding documents, such as the Inter-Agency Steering Committee Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Interventions in Humanitarian Action, the sad fact remains that this guidance is rarely applied in practice.

Oxfam and partners are trying to fill the information gap around this issue, through research in camps in Uganda, Nigeria and Iraq. With measurable information from over 600 displaced people so far, we hope to prove to the humanitarian sector that it is time we changed our practices. Here are some of our findings to date.

Location of toilets and wash facilities matters

Location is one of the most important issues for women and men, both during the day and at night. Not only in terms of where the latrine or bathing facility is located in the camp, but also where the women’s facility is relative to the men’s.

In Nigeria, female latrines were located right next to the tree under which soldiers would gather at night time, making the journey to the toilet very dangerous for a woman alone at night.

Significant safety, shame and stigma can arise from being seen going to the facilities. In Iraq, communities living under ISIS for the past three years, where women were not even allowed outside of the house, were suddenly expected to use male and female toilets no more than a metre apart. Women using the latrines alone at night were severely punished.

Privacy is a major concern

People looking into the latrines peeping or taking elicit photographs is a real problem. In the camp where we are conducting research in Uganda there were not even doors on some of the latrines, making the experience of going to the toilet both dangerous and undignified.

No one lighting solution

Lack of lighting is directly linked to perceptions of insecurity at night, to varying degrees for women and men depending on the location.

In Nigeria women wanted torches, not just so they could see more clearly, but because they could shine the torches in men’s faces and identify them, which deterred the men from attacking them.

Oxfam has learnt from previous experiences that installing lights around latrines is not a simple solution in itself. In one camp where lights were installed the latrines became a focal point for men to gather at night, which meant that women felt less safe. We learnt from this that if lighting is installed it should be throughout the camp, not just where the latrines are.

Safer sanitation experiences needed

The high risk attached to using the toilet, particularly at night has a significant impact on usage of sanitation facilities for both men and women, during the day and at night, our research found that 90% of women in Uganda were not using the toilets at night time. The humanitarian sector spends millions of pounds on toilets every year, but the research findings that so many people, particularly women are not even using the toilets begs the question – who are we building them for?

More about safe sanitation


Julie Lafrenière


Kerry Akers