The value of hygiene

Many of us take good personal hygiene and access to basic sanitation facilities such as clean water or a toilet for granted. But what happens when your access is limited? What if you do not have access to clean water or a toilet, or cannot afford hygiene products? Personal hygiene is a problem strongly linked to education and socioeconomic development. Good hygiene practices must be guaranteed to enable universal participation in education, the workplace and the development of society as a whole.

Old woman with a water pipe (photo)

WSSCC/Katherine Anderson

Sanitation with hygiene at the center is a universal human right. This human right “entitles everyone to sanitation services that provide privacy and ensure dignity, and that are physically accessible, affordable, safe, hygienic, secure and socially and culturally acceptable” (Realizing the Rights to Water and Sanitation Handbook, Catarina de Albuquerque).

As part of its 2030 Agenda, the United Nations (UN) set as Goal 6 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the ambition to “Ensure access to water and sanitation for all”, including the target to “achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.” This effectively places access to sanitation and hygiene alongside goals such as eliminating poverty and ending hunger. Furthermore, good hygiene and challenging taboos surrounding personal hygiene can contribute to reaching other goals, such as gender equality (Goal 5) and health and well-being (Goal 3).

The UN estimates that 2.4 billion people worldwide lack access to sanitation facilities. Around the world, social norms also often work against, rather than for, progress in hygiene. We therefore need to keep showing why hygiene matters for personal, social and economic development. This chapter will do so by focusing on the value that hygiene creates in terms of health and well-being, and on the repercussions of poor hygiene on individuals – especially women and girls – as well as on society and the economy.