On the blog

Friday, 21 February 2014

Shut that door!

Many parents of small children find the constant demands of their young ones can sometimes get a bit trying. The final straw can often be the inability to go to the toilet, shut and lock the door, and claim a few minutes peace and privacy.  

For millions of people in the world, there is never any privacy for these daily bodily functions. Open defecation is their only option.  So along with improved health and hygiene, twinning your toilet with a latrine overseas is an act that can bestow a more intangible - but arguably no less important - benefit:  a private space to respond to the call of nature.
A room without a view: Ugandan toilets with doors that shut.
Photo: Vernon Kingsley/Toilet Twinning

Different cultures, of course, have different attitudes to privacy, and the need for privacy also varies between individuals.  Many of us will know the irritation of having our personal space invaded, for example when someone stands ‘too close for comfort’ while talking to you.  Others are happy to put almost all their emotions and actions out on social media.

And where does our need for privacy end and the negativity of loneliness begin?  A high-rise close-the-door culture where relationships become increasingly virtual, accessed through technology rather than face to face, is not a comfortable vision for the future.  

But wherever we would draw our personal line between the private and the public, there are some actions that we would all prefer to do behind closed doors, given the choice.

In her autobiography ‘Daughter of the River’,  Hong Ying describes her youthful experience of communal latrines in 20th century China. Defecation, she said, was  ‘no easy matter, with all those eyes fixed on your exposed private parts...Standing in the queue made me nervous;  so did the squatting itself.’  Constipation became a way of life.

She would use a book or a bag to gain a little privacy, but that brought its own problems: ‘I didn’t want people in the queue thinking I was intentionally shielding my private parts from view.  The last thing I wanted was for those sharp-tongued gossipy women to start saying I had some kind of problem. What did I have that was so great that I wouldn’t let them see it?’

Modern-day public toilets in Beijing, China. At home, toilet facilities are less likely to be shared.
Public toilets without doors are still common in China, but the massive home building programme has brought private facilities to many if not most.  And an occasional use of doorless cubicles, with their rudimentary but welcome plumbing, is one thing. But a daily quest for a private piece of ground, or having to delay defecation until darkness arrives, is quite another.   

Many people in the world’s poorest countries (a club to which China emphatically does not belong) face this reality.  That’s why, when you twin your toilet you are giving a wonderful gift. You are helping people to understand about hygiene, handwashing and the dangers of open defecation for sure;  you are certainly helping them gain the skills to construct latrines; but you are also giving them the blessed relief of little bit of privacy every day of their lives.