Lack of toilets more than just a sanitation problem

Women having to defecate in the open, at odd hours, not only threatens their dignity, but their safety as well


Around 65% of the rural population in India defecates in the open. Photo: Nitin Kumar Gupta/NavShrishti NGO
Around 65% of the rural population in India defecates in the open. Photo: Nitin Kumar Gupta/NavShrishti NGO

New Delhi:It’s the same story retold countless times across the country. In Mewat, Haryana, a 12-year-old girl and her 10-year-old sister go to visit their grandparents in village Kurali Sohna. As night falls, the girls go out to defecate in the open, as they do every day.

A man from the village, who the girls know, accosts them a few metres outside their grandparents’ home. He manages to send the younger one off, drags the elder one aside and rapes her.

When the panchayat (village council) sits in judgement, the rapist has his face blackened, is beaten in public and made to pay a Rs.40,000 fine. The case is never reported to the police, says Monika Jain, deputy director, projects, International Academy of Environmental Sanitation and Public Health. They are too poor, says Jain, and have reposed their faith in justice from the panchayat.

Kurali Sohna village has almost 300 houses, out of which approximately 12 have an attached latrine. The majority of the population defecates in the open.

In Bihar, where 75.8% homes have no sanitation facilities, an 11-year-old girl in Mai village, Jehanabad district, was raped on 5 May last year when she was going out in the fields late at night. Earlier, on 28 April, another girl was raped also while going to defecate in the open in another village, 35km from Patna. Another girl was raped on 24 April in a farm in Chaunniya village, Bihar. These are stories that don’t make headlines. But in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, two cousins raped late in May while going out together to the fields, their bodies strung up the next morning from a tree in a crime so horrific and depraved causes nation-wide outrage and a renewed debate on rape, caste, patriarchy, and inefficient policing.

But the fact that this horrific crime occurred while the girls were undertaking a routine function also points to India’s glaring lack of sanitation facilities.

Women are not raped in India because they lack access to toilets. Women are raped because somebody rapes them. Yet, lack of toilets and the fact that women have to defecate in the open, at odd hours, makes them easy prey.

Apart from exposing the impact of caste on forms of gender-based violence, the recent gangrape and murder of two cousins in Badaun as well as the Bhagana gangrape in March in Haryana once again point to a need as basic as having a toilet of one’s own.

Around 65% of the rural population in India defecates in the open.

Women and girls are expected to do the same, but at night or early in the morning when nobody is around, since that gives them a small measure of privacy.

“This does not only threaten their dignity, but their safety as well,” Louis-Georges Arsenault, UNICEF’s representative to India, said in a statement.

The link between the lack of toilets and sexual assault is not limited to rural India, even though the risk is higher in rural areas because women have to go out into isolated fields, making them more vulnerable to assault. A 2012 study on urban sanitation by Pune-based philanthropist organization, Dasra, found that as many as 30% women who live in slums in towns and cities are assaulted as the lack of a toilet at home forces them to go outdoors either late at night or early in the morning.

“Many of the sexual assault and rape cases that come to us from the jhuggis and slums in Delhi happen to take place when these women go out to relieve themselves,” said Shani Srivastava, advocacy coordinator of Nav Srishti, an NGO for women and child empowerment, supported by non-profit Child Rights and You (CRY).

“More than 60% of the rapes in the state occur when the victims step out to relieve themselves because they do not have toilets at their homes,” Ashish Gupta, a police official, told reporters in Lucknow. “It is difficult to give protection to every woman who goes out in the open to relieve herself.”

In Uttar Pradesh, where the Badaun gangrape has been followed by a series of rapes being reported throughout the state, a massive project called Swajaldhara and Total Sanitation Campaign was launched in collaboration with the central government back in 2002 primarily to build toilets.

However, even today only 22% of the state’s households have toilets.

A 2010 study by the Water and Sanitation Programme of the World Bank estimated that inadequate sanitation costs India $53.8 billion annually. This was equivalent to 6.4% of India’s gross domestic product in 2006 and was mainly due to health costs and premature deaths.

The country needs about 120 million more latrines, estimates Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, a group that helps build low-cost toilets across India.

Talking about development priorities, former rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, who launched the “No toilet, no bride” campaign, had expressed surprise on how India had more mobile phones than toilets.

Three years back, Anita Narre, a young bride, walked out of her husband’s home in Betul district in Madhya Pradesh because it did not have a toilet. In response, the village panchayat asked the husband to immediately build a toilet, providing him with assistance in doing so.

This prompted other families to follow and bachelors in the village had to submit their photographs with a toilet to be eligible for marriage under the Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Yojana, a popular scheme under which the Madhya Pradesh government provides financial assistance and gifts to the tune of Rs.15,000 to a couple.

“Toilets first, temple later,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said just before launching his election campaign. The new NDA government is now about to embark on an ambitious multi-million dollar sanitation project that will start from three cities in Uttar Pradesh.

But building toilets will not automatically end or even reduce sexual violence against women. Blogger Vaidehi Joshi remarks that providing sanitation is a major infrastructure input that can improve the situation of the poor. But, she says, it is not the end-it-all solution.

“In the wake of this tragedy, we can build all the safe toilets we want. But let’s not live under the illusion that sexual violence will end because of it,” she wrote on her blog, Bustle.

This is the fifth part of a Mint series on Toilets for India.

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