"How can you solve a problem if you can’t even talk about it? We need to end the taboos, euphemisms, stigma, and silence that surround toilet access issues. In doing so, we work towards mainstreaming critical discussions about toilets, menstruation, hygiene and clean water. By normalizing the conversation, we hope to eliminate the barriers faced by decision makers when addressing toilet access and create a dialogue that puts toilets at the centre of social and economic development.”
-Kanika Thakar, #ToiletTalk
World Toilet Day - Interview with Kanika Thakar
November 19, 2019
What did you study in school and how did you get to where you are today in terms of your work and environmental interests?
I started out with the dream of being a doctor, and so I started out studying cellular biology. It turned out, I really didn’t have a knack for it and I was really unhappy. So, I spent a semester taking random courses to try and find a better fit and that’s when I discovered economics, ecology and international development.
It’s a pretty broad mix, even today people look at me a little funny when I tell them my background, but all three of those subjects has added something unique. Economics taught me the power of preferences and how you can shape outcomes based on incentives. Ecology taught me about the balance at play in natural systems and that that balance always needs to be respected. And international development taught me to look beyond my front door, to the whole world of people and potential. It taught me empathy but also the strength of empowerment.
Those three subjects lead me to my Master’s degree in Integrated Water Resources Management which was all about balancing the needs of people, industry and the environment in order to build better, well-rounded outcomes.
But most of all what these three subjects taught me is that if you follow your passions and interests, everything else will fall in place. I have let my passions steer me and I have remained open to opportunities and dared to start things on my own, things that others said wouldn’t work. I believe that openness, curiosity and patience (which I sometimes lack…) are the keys to finding a path best for you.
Can you explain why you are so passionate about access to toilets and how you have expressed this passion in your life?
I have always been passionate about the environment (and especially fascinated by water) and fairness. I didn’t think things were always fair for me as a girl and I hated that. I think that sense of fairness is a big part of what drives me today. I want every girl and every woman to have the same opportunity as the boys and men that surround them. And access to toilets and clean water are a huge factor in realizing that.
If a girl doesn’t have access to a toilet at school, by the age of 12 (when many girls start their periods) she’ll be missing at least one week of school a month because she has no way to manage her period during the day. Just for being a girl, she is disadvantaged. Feeling left behind in school, many girls drop out. No education means limited career prospects. By the age of 12 her future has been determined.
That thought alone is what fills me with passion and drive. The world is missing out on the brilliant minds of these girls and women because their futures have been decided at the age of 12. We are all missing out because of toilets.
We often think of all the negative things that happen when we don’t have toilets – girls dropping out of school, women being attacked when going to poop in the night, water being contaminated, people getting sick, stunted growth, malnutrition…
But what if we turned that all around and thought about all the great things that toilets give us! Going to school, completing your education, being able to have a job, clean streets, well fed children, longer, healthy lives. So much of our lives and our economies rely on toilets, and yet we are so embarrassed to talk about them!
My way of expressing my passion is to talk about toilets, poop and periods freely and openly. I think we need to all give thanks to the opportunities that toilets afford us and make sure that we don’t take it for granted. And my hope is that by normalizing the conversation we can help real change happen. Because, how can you solve a problem (like the 1.2 billion people living without a toilet) if you can’t even talk about it?
Were you always interested in Water Initiatives? Why should this be important to other people?
I think water is fascinating. It makes nearly all life on earth possible. My first love of water came from eight grade chemistry – leaning about its molecular structure and polarity that allows it coalesce, its ability to work as a powerful solvent, its unique structure that makes it one of the few liquids that expands when it freezes instead of contracting! It’s amazing!
But I realized how much I valued water in 2004 when I went to India to study dance and to work with a charity focused on education called Pratham. While walking through the slums of Mumbai I saw children playing in a grey, putrid looking liquid and putting it in their mouths. I saw mothers washing dishes with the same liquid and even people brushing their teeth… It took me a moment to realize it was water. Growing up in Canada, I had never known that life without clean running water could exist. I felt so sad and so angry at the same time. It was this epiphany moment, I knew I had to do something in my life that would help give everyone the same access to beautiful, clean water that I had.
Our lives don’t exist without water, and they don’t exist without toilets. These are two things we take for granted every single day. I take up these causes to try to get more attention to them, because if we don’t start doing more to preserve the water we have and get more toilets to more people, we are all going to be in big trouble.
What advice would you give to young people on how they can get involved in environmental projects in meaningful ways.
Find something you are passionate about and dive in! Don’t worry if it’s the right thing to do or if this will get you into the right job later… Just do it! And don’t be afraid to start things on your own, like Maple Wishes!
Be open to new opportunities! I remember when my mom first mentioned her colleague’s toilet project, I laughed and thought “who cares about toilets?” But that experience changed my life! Be open. And be really open to what you don’t know.
Finally, ask for help but be specific. I LOVE when youth and young professionals reach out to me! But I feel a little helpless when I don’t know what they need. So, don’t be afraid to reach out, but be clear about what you want and why you are reaching out to that person.
If the universe granted you one wish, what would it be?
WOW! What a question!!! If I could ask for one wish, I think it would be for every individual in the world to have more empathy. I think with more empathy many of our problems would be solved. If we had more empathy, then we would allocate more resources to ensure that everyone has a toilet and access to clean water. If we had more empathy, we would make sure women and girls had the means to safely manage their periods. If we had more empathy, women and men would be afforded the same opportunities. If we had more empathy, we wouldn’t over consume water; depriving ecosystems and downstream communities of their needs. If we had more empathy, we would care more about our environment and future generations and do more to stop climate change. If we had more empathy, we would all be a little bit kinder…. And that is the world that I would like to live in.
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to do this! It has been a wonderfully enlightening and fulfilling experience!!