Using A Refugee Camp Toilet Can Be Risky At Night. Could This Box Help?

The Night Loo is designed to help women avoid dangerous situations.

Using A Refugee Camp Toilet Can Be Risky At Night. Could This Box Help?

A California-based designer may have come up with a solution that will help women in refugee camps avoid potentially dangerous situations.

Anna Meddaugh got her idea for the Night Loo after reading extensively about the experiences of women and girls in refugee camps across the globe. One article in particular, which described how adult diapers were an in-demand product at refugee camps because women and girls were at risk of being sexually assaulted in the bathrooms at night, stuck with Meddaugh. 

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"It was just too much, it was just so upsetting," Meddaugh told A Plus. "Of all the things I take for granted in my life, going to the bathroom safely whenever I want to is definitely one of those things."

Night Loo
The final design of the Night Loo.  Anna Meddaugh

Meddaugh, who had worked in public health for 13 years before going to back to school for product design, was taking a class the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, where the challenge was to solve a problem for displaced people. After reading about the sexual assault happening in refugee camps, she began playing with the idea of a portable toilet that women and girls could use at their bedside in the middle of the night so they wouldn't have to walk to a bathroom alone. 

At first, her teachers were hesitant. They wanted to see data on the frequency of sexual assault in refugee camps. But Meddaugh had read the firsthand testimonials, and while reliable data didn't yet exist, she also knew that sexual assaults in the general public frequently went underreported — and she imagined the same was true, if not worse, inside refugee camps. 

"It's not about statistics," Meddaugh said. "There are stories and we know it's severely underreported... I tried to put myself in the place of somebody who is potentially facing violence just trying to take care of such a basic human need. At that point, I just thought, well, 'That's what I need to work on.'"

The United Nations Refugee Agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the risks women and girls face in refugee camps, but the horrors have been well-documented by organizations like Amnesty International.

The first iteration of the Night Loo was actually a way to take a discarded water bottle and turn it into a receptacle. Meddaugh was focusing on absorbent inserts that someone could place inside something that had previously carried water. Her goal was to make a product that didn't need to be manufactured: that way women in camps could make it for themselves. But after testing the design out herself, she realized it would be too difficult to clean out and not easy enough to use, and she began thinking about building a product from scratch that could open, close, be cleaned and lie flat for shipping.  

Once she had a general idea of what the receptacle would look like, her biggest challenge was figuring out what would best absorb the liquid, reduce odor, and give the women and girls who used it some comfort and dignity. After going through several materials, she finally settled on a super-absorbent polymer that would turn urine into a dry powder, eliminate odor and took only ten seconds to absorb. And since she didn't want people to have to spoon the powder out of a packet, she sealed it in a lining similar to a dishwashing detergent pod that the user could simply drop into the receptacle.

With nothing to throw away and nothing to measure, the user could simply fold the receptacle shut after use, drop the polymer pod in, and then dump the receptacle powder in the morning into a latrine at the refugee camp. It was seamless, and Meddaugh decided the design was ready for the public.

Since releasing the Night Loo, Meddaugh's design was featured in Fast Company, which has drawn in new attention on her product. One refugee organization working in Myanmar reached out because women aren't using the toilets that are away from the sleeping quarters, and they're hoping the Night Loo is a potential solution. Meddaugh hasn't manufactured any yet, but with the right funding, she's hoping she can find a partner to send the Night Loo out to women and girls in refugee camps to get feedback. Like any design, she's sure it'll need some adjustments, but she's hoping it can make a difference. 

"It would mean so much to me if this really will work — and I think it will," Meddaugh said. "At the beginning, there were many points in the design process where I really was like, 'I don't know how I'm going to solve this or do anything about this problem.' But it feels too important not to give it my best try. If this really can get out there and can help people out, that would just be amazing."

Cover image via Xinhua/Lefteris Partsalis via Getty Images.

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