The challenges and injustices that girls and women in the developing world face are many, across all aspects of life, and include structural, social, and economic barriers – barriers that men, and women who live in richer countries, experience to far lesser degrees. In developing countries, women are more than twice as likely as men to be responsible for water collection. On average, women and girls in Africa walk 6 kilometers each day to collect water – time which could be spent in school or at work (Brewster et al., 2006). Studies have shown that with clean water and accessible toilet facilities, come greater self-esteem, less harassment to women, and better school attendance by girls by over 15%.
Open defecation is all too common in India and is clearly a public health emergency. However open defecation is even more hazardous for women who are not only at risk of bacterial infection and snake bites, but are also exposed to the danger of sexual assault. Although open defecation has been reduced by 31% since 1990, about 300 million women and girls in India are faced with no other option. Last year two teenage girls from the state of Uttar Pradesh were gang-raped and found hanging from a tree after they left their village home to go to the toilet. There was a brief outcry with articles linking their murders to the lack of toilets. Then came the backlash from writers such as the academic scholar Shilpa Phadke and the head of policy at WaterAid India, Nitya Jacob, arguing that the murders were due to “caste issues”. Indian women and girls are raped everywhere with no relation to open defecation. Shilpa Phadke wrote in Al Jazeera that toilets at home could actually damage women’s freedom, suggesting that women actually enjoy leaving their home, going to out to the open fields together to chat with other women.
Four months later, more than 100 new toilets were built in the same village in Uttar Pradesh where the two girls were found. The toilets were built by the Delhi based sanitation charity, Sulabh. The founder of Sulabh, Bindeshwar Pathak, said that a lack of toilets was a factor in many sexual attacks, especially in rural areas. “This campaign is the most fitting tribute to the girls whose death triggered a national debate on women’s right to safe toilets.”
During his Independence Day speech last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged government officials and corporations to help construct toilets: “Has it ever pained us that our mothers and sisters have to defecate in the open…. Can’t we just make arrangements for toilets for the dignity of our mothers and sisters?” In response to Modi’s Swachh Bharat (“Clean India”) campaign there is now a new social movement nicknamed “No loo, No I do,” where brides are refusing to marry into families that do not have a toilet in the home.
Stopping open defecation will not put an end to sexual assault in India. The country has made headway in recent years with increased arrests of sexual assault assailants, but there is much more to be done that toilets will not solve. But this is a step in the right direction. No longer having to defecate openly will decrease a woman’s exposure to sexual assault significantly. Toilets and sanitation more generally must be a demand-driven process, both led and informed by those meant to be the beneficiaries of these interventions. And, seeing as women all across India are demanding toilets, it is time for the world to listen.
Brewster, Marcia M., et al. "A gender perspective on water resources and sanitation." Wagadu 3.0 (2006).