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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Press Conferences

Deputy Secretary-General's remarks at Media Launch of Sanitation Campaign

New York, 28 May 2014

I’m very glad that you have joined us for this very important great cause.  It really can make a difference for so many people around the world.

Welcome to the session. 

I am here to talk about something that the world chooses not to talk about.

I’m here to speak on something that affects everybody in this room, but some out there  more directly or painfully than others.

I’m talking about a choice that 15% of the global population are forced to make every day, a staggering 1 billion of our fellow men, women and children. A choice that has a terrible impact on the health of these people. A choice that every day leads to the death of thousands of children, one every two and a half minutes.

It’s about a situation that exists now, shocking in its scale and consequences and affecting the lives of people every day.

It keeps women under the threat of harassment, violence and rape.

It forces girls to abandon education at puberty.

It contributes to a cost of $260bn a year through death, ill health and loss of productivity.

It is not an addiction; it’s not a disease; it is not a dictator or a regime.

It is not a war; it is not a weapon; it is not an act of terrorism.

I am talking about the practice of Open Defecation.

{Silence for 7-10 seconds}

For many of you this silence that I imposed upon you was probably uncomfortable or at least confusing.  I would like you to ask yourselves: why – why was this silence uncomfortable?

Was it the sadness or anger at the completely preventable deaths of so many?  These horrible statistics.

Was it simply considering the horror of these facts, what was behind them?

Was it affront to dignity or social awkwardness? In fact, was it embarrassment, over the subject, over the words used?

In that case, it is high time to talk openly about Open Defecation and it is high time to bring it to an end.

That is why we are here today.  To launch a campaign to break the silence on open defecation and issue a Call to Action on Sanitation, or repeat it rather, because we started it already in March last year – the most lagging of the Millennium Development Goals.  Let us remember that the first step to solve any problem is to talk about it.

If we could end Open Defecation in just ten countries we would see the numbers of people affected drop by 80%.

If we end Open Defecation, we would see a direct reduction of 36% in death due to diarrhoea for children under five, with the consequences of improved sanitation reaching even farther.

Yes, it is time to talk about Open Defecation.  Yes, it is time to present the facts, the consequences, the solutions.  Yes, it is also time to talk about the many places around the world, where community members, local leaders and politicians are creating social movements to end this damaging practice - Open Defecation-free zones.

The sanitation issue has concerned me since my first days of working for the United Nations, in refugee camps, in the many places where open defecation is practiced.  I have seen children die, silently, from diarrhoea – from diseases that could have been prevented if only there had been toilets or adequate sanitation.

When I was President of the General Assembly, I took it as a habit to raise my glass, just to remind people of the need for clean water and I introduced the word ‘toilet’ in diplomatic discourse early on.  We have now, in this meeting today, introduced another one, haven’t we?

This effort today is also part of the acceleration of the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals by the end of 2015.  We have one year and seven months to go, and the sanitation targets are the ones most lagging behind.  We must take action now.

I would like you to remember our moment of silence this morning, but not remember an awkward pause or a sense of embarrassment – but instead ponder on the simple fact that if we see an end to Open Defecation and if we see better access to sanitation, we might begin to see the end to so much more around the world.

We might one day see a world where health and prosperity are afforded to everyone, not just those who can afford what so many of us now take for granted.

We must keep in mind that we must create a life of dignity for all.  A life of dignity for all in this world.

And so, I hope that today is the last time any of us remain silent on toilets or open defecation – words now part of the diplomatic discourse.

Thank you very much.