Handwashing is a human right

Handwashing is a fundamental step to ensure human dignity. When 3 out of 10 persons do not have access to basic handwashing facilities with soap and water within their homes this represents a global failure on many fronts, including human rights, public health and hygiene. The importance of handwashing is also enshrined in SDG 6.2.1b on hygiene. As it is extensively known, the lack of handwashing facilities is a key determinant of a variety of diseases and is the cause of many preventable deaths worldwide. When in a community handwashing is not a usual practice, this is a clear sign that adequate water and sanitation facilities are missing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the best evidence of this unacceptable picture. Among the few non-pharmaceutical measures available to prevent virus dissemination, handwashing has been demonstrated to be an effective and probably the most accessible measure. This underscores the strong significance of this basic yet key action. Unfortunately, the other side of the coin is that those historically discriminated in the access to safe WASH have been precisely those most directly impacted by COVID-19.

Only two ingredients are necessary for handwashing: water and soap (or alternative ways to remove microorganisms from hands in settings where access to soap is scarce). Access to soap is something possible to achieve through individual effort, including where the State subsidizes its acquisition. However, access to water, more often than not, requires collective action and the presence of the State to ensure facilities that are available, affordable and sustainable. In other words, ensuring water and sanitation for all requires public policies. And when these policies are guided by a human rights framework, persons living in informal settlements or rural areas, indigenous peoples, forcibly displaced persons or people living in homelessness will be visible for these policies and their access will become a priority.

To mark Global Handwashing Day on Friday 15 October, it is essential to deliver a reminder that access to water and access to sanitation services are human rights. Recognising this means that nobody can be denied its rightful access to water and sanitation services due to reasons related to personal or social characteristics, such as gender, race, ethnic origin, caste, health status or land tenure. Together, we can make a difference and ensure that WASH policies become truly inclusive and reach those who have been left behind.


IWA, through its Regulating for Citywide Inclusive Sanitation programme, is working closely with regulators especially in Latin America and Southeast Asia to advance access to WASH for neglected urban communities. Find out more.


Léo Heller

Former UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation