Mango trees are generally associated with shelter for children to play in the scorching dry heat of the Indo-Gangetic plains. One such tree at the edge of Katra Sadatganj village in Uttar Pradesh turned into a crime scene with the killing of two teenage girls on 28 May. The girls had gone to a field near their house to answer the call of nature when they were allegedly seized by a group of men, raped and hung from the tree.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s 2013 annual report, over 24,000 rape cases took place in India in 2012, making it the fourth most common crime against women in India. In 98% of the cases, the crime was committed by neighbours or relatives. The details are a reminder of the grim reality that women are not safe even in their families or surroundings.

The Katra Sadatganj gang-rape and murder also highlight a big problem that India faces—the absence of toilets in a lot of households. According to Census 2011, about 15 million urban families in the country do not have toilets at home; the situation in rural areas is worse.

The absence of toilets at home poses logistical, physical and health challenges to a woman. She needs to travel a considerable distance from her house to answer the call of nature. This exposes her to unsanitary conditions as well as physical risks. Unhygienic conditions and open toilets are breeding grounds for diseases such as diarrhoea, worm infections and viral encephalitis.

The need of the hour is to have a time-bound programme that gives every household a toilet at home. Subsidies, monitoring by local agencies—panchayats and the state government—and perhaps the linking of building toilets to programmes such as the rural job guarantee scheme could be considered.

An interesting example has been set by Sulabh International, which did a short survey of Katra Sadatganj that showed more than 400 of the 650 families in the village lacked toilets. The non-governmental organization, which claims to have started construction in the village to provide toilets to households who do not have one, has estimated the cost at 10,000-15,000 per unit. The government can, however, build cheaper, yet functional toilets across the country.

A village well or a water source that is accessible to the woman is also critical. The water could serve multiple purposes, including for use in the toilet. Ideally the water should come straight to the house, but in the absence of this, multiple wells—to prevent conflicts on the basis of caste or class, which are a reality in village life—ensuring that every woman can easily access a village water source in the immediate vicinity of her house, are necessary.

The situation is troubling even at the school level. More than 61.1 million girls are enrolled at the primary school level, but this number sharply drops at the upper primary levelto 22.7 million. A report published by the National University of Educational Planning and Administration shows that almost 30% of the girls drop out of school even before reaching Class VI. The survey also shows that the dropout rate reaches its peak of almost 13% in Class V, when a girl is expected to reach puberty.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the government of India launched the National Urban Sanitation Policy in 2008 with the objective of achieving 100% sanitation coverage in urban areas. The policy makes it necessary for schools to emphasize proper sanitation, personal hygiene, clean toilet habits and, most importantly, separate toilets for girls and boys. However, reports show that four out of 10 schools across India still don’t have functional toilets, while more than 31% of schools have no separate provision of toilets for girls. Even if toilets for girls are available, many of them are poorly maintained or are inadequate in number. This results in girls absenting themselves from classes for long spells of time or, in extreme cases, dropping out of school.

Looking at the grim reality, the only silver lining is that a government policy is in place to provide separate toilets for girls in schools. However, there is an urgent need to implement the policy far more aggressively. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has specifically mentioned in its election manifesto that its top priorities include women’s welfare, healthcare, school health and hygiene. Women may account for only 11% of all Lok Sabha members of Parliament, but they make up 25% of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, strongly indicating that Indian women may now get the attention they deserve.

Anubha Dhal is a manager with Global Health Strategies Emerging Economies in New Delhi.

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