Some 3.1 million children under the age of five and 1.7 million women die in Asia annually because of poor sanitation, an international conference was told Saturday.
"The subject of women and sanitation is of utmost importance, and if we have to ensure gender equality to pave the way for rapid progress, women's problems need immediate attention," said Bindeshwar Pathak, founder, Sulabh International.
"Poor water and sanitation also increases the vulnerability to opportunistic infections and can accelerate the progression from HIV positive to full-blown AIDS," said Pathak, whose organisation runs community toilets in India.
The four-day conference on women and child development with ministers from Asia Pacific region concluded here Saturday, and was addressed by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Friday.
Pathak said it was an irony that women who carry water for long distances, and often more than they should, do not have access to it when they ease themselves. "No wonder, they become repositories of a variety of water-borne ailments."
Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Meira Kumar said she wanted to make it mandatory for authorities at schools and educational institutions to provide toilets for girls.
"Without toilets, they don't feel like normal persons. In these conditions the question of their taking interest in studies doesn't arise. I am sure there will be a fall in the dropout rate of girls in schools if they are provided toilets," she said.
"My heart is full of sorrow when I think of women going miles to fetch pales of water so that they could meet the requirements for food and sanitation of their husbands and children. Don't they deserve any consideration?" she queried.
"The availability and placement of toilets has a huge impact on women," said Pathak, adding that it was all the more important that they have access to clean water since they are often the primary care-givers to the sick family members.
"In many communities, they walk long distances, often risking personal safety. There is an increased evidence of sexual and physical assaults when toilets are in a remote location."