Noting Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pledge to end the practice in the country by 2019, the UN said it is an "ambition" channeling the view of Mahatma Gandhi, who had termed sanitation "more important than independence."

About one billion people worldwide or one-sixth of the developing world's 5.9 billion population do not use toilets. About 825 million people — 82 per cent of the one billion practicing open defecation reside in just 10 countries, the UN said as it marked 'World Toilet Day' on Wednesday.

India has the highest number of people practicing open defecation at 597 million or 47 per cent of the national population. Others are Indonesia (54 million), Pakistan (41 million, Nepal (11 million) and China (10 million).

The other five countries where people do not use the toilets are in Africa, namely Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Niger and Mozambique. UN also called on religious, education and opinion leaders in developing regions to join government officials and champion a halt to open defecation, highlighting the health threat posed by lack of access to sanitation, and the particular dangers open defecation poses for women and girls.

"We know that political will at the highest level is critical to address these challenges. However, we also know that success at ending open defecation goes beyond infrastructure. It requires the understanding of behaviors, cultural attitudes and social norms," Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said in a statement.

The UN noted Modi's pledge to have 111 million toilets and achieve an end to open defecation by 2019, saying it is an "ambition" channeling the view of Mahatma Gandhi, who had termed sanitation "more important than independence."

Eliasson added that women and girls bear the "greatest burdens" caused by the lack of toilet access. "Girls are more likely to drop out of school if they don't have access to a safe and clean toilet. Women and girls are also at the risk of harassment and sexual abuse when trying to use public toilets or when trying to find somewhere to defecate in the open," he said. "Universal access to sanitation has a clear role to play in defending women's safety, dignity and equality," he added.

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