Indian Women’s Rights to Safe Toilets

Posted on September 6, 2010.

By Karen Ma
author/gender researcher

karen-photo-2-webAccess to toilets for us who are raised in the developed world is a given. But in India’s case, a severe shortage of clean and safe toilets is not only affecting the health of its women, but directly hampering efforts to empower them.

This hit home when I visited Rajasthan a few months ago to do some field research about Indian women in a village. When I had to go to the toilet, I asked where I could find a public toilet, only to be told there wasn’t such a thing. A village woman finally offered me the use of her laundry room. I looked around and couldn’t find any facilities—there wasn’t even a hole on the ground. And before the woman shut the door, she made sure I understood through interpretation that I was not to do a number two on the tiled floor. I was dumbfounded. Where then, do women go when they have to answer the call of nature?

I got my answer in the form of a recent WHO-Unicef report, which states that in 2008, some 638 million Indians pooed without a loo. India has a population of roughly 1.1 billion, so if you do the math, it means 60 percent of the nation’s people have to put up with the inconvenience.

Social workers and women’s activists later confirm that many villagers and slum dwellers simply go about doing their businesses in the fields. But women bear the brunt of health risks and worst in this undignified practice because while the men and boys go to the fields in the morning, the women run out to do the same at night or at the crack of the dawn around 4 am, well before everyone else wakes up.

The thought of young girls braving snake and scorpion bites, assaults and rapes when they are compelled to take recourse to the wilderness for this basic function is enough to make me shudder.

That open defecation is the cause of many deadly diarrheas and other intestinal diseases that can kill hundreds and thousands every year is already a well known knowledge. Worst, to avoid the embarrassment of having to relieve themselves in open air during the day, often women have to resort to not drinking water at all or holding it in all day. Imagine not drinking water all day under the blazing sun!

The situation is so dire that in some parts of India, a growing number of families are using “No Toilet, No Bride” as their slogan, refusing to marry off their daughters unless the prospect groom can provide a toilet attached to his house. .

Sadly, the toilet provision problem isn’t just limited to rural India, but the capital city as well. What’s more, the number of the few available public toilets is unreasonably tilted in favor of the males. According to Delhi High Court inspection in 2007, out of Delhi’s 3,192 public toilets, only 132 were for women.

Worst, the severe shortage of sanitation facilities in both village and city schools is directly hampering young girls’ rights to education. As half of India’s government-run schools don’t have separate toilets for males and females, young women are forced by their parents to give up on schooling once they reach puberty in fear they might be molested. In India, chastity is a prerequisite to attracting a good suitor for a girl.

Clara Greed, a British urban design planner, once said that you can judge the true position of women in a nation by the state of its toilets and access, and by looking at its toilet queues. With the advent of the Commonwealth Game, there’s real impetus to build new clean toilets for the event. Let’s hope that the Indian government will take this opportunity to begin correcting the problem so that their womenfolk and young girls can finally be relieved from their agony and indignity.