By Zoya Sham:
The UNICEF Total Sanitation television commercial called ‘Dulhan’ converges two of India’s most prominent social issues – the suppressive patriarchal idea of keeping a woman in a veil and the public health issue of inadequate sanitation in rural India. On watching the commercial, it is clear that the latter wins out over the former. It promotes development through better sanitation but backslides by encouraging ideas of keeping women in their rightful place, at home in their ghoonghats. Is this prioritizing of social issues justified?
The need for sanitation facilities in rural India became a political priority in 2013 when Narendra Modi said, “Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya” (toilets first, temples later). The Planning Commission conducted an evaluation study for the Total Sanitation Campaign, which found that 72.63% of all rural households practiced open defecation. This unsanitary practice leads to diseases, malnutrition, sexual violence and various other hazards. To combat this issue the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (now Swacch Bharat Abhiyan) was set up which aims to build 11 crore toilets across the country in 5 years, many of which have already been constructed.
However, this project is not completely successful as villagers are apprehensive to actually use the toilets constructed for them. In 2014, another survey showed that over 40% of households with a working latrine have at least one member who still defecates in the open. In an interview with Bloomberg, Sunita, a resident of Mukimpur, a north Indian village said, “Feces don’t belong under the same roof as where we eat and sleep.” “Locking us inside these booths with our own filth? I will never see how that is clean, going out there is normal.” She added pointing to the field.
The surveys also indicate that the reasons for the unused toilets are ‘lack of awareness’ and ‘established age-old practices’. Since defecating in the open is the only way the villagers know how, they refuse to accept why it can’t continue regardless of health hazards. Many women preferred open defecation because it gave them an excuse to leave their houses to socialize and ‘exchange gossip.’ These ideological hurdles make it necessary to explain the issue in a context that can be understood by the rural population.
Therefore, since respect for a woman in rural and traditional India correlates to her modesty and dignity, these are important tools to explain her health and sanitation needs. The campaign in Nal Beri, in Bikaner, overcame age-old beliefs by raising questions about the community’s pride and dignity like “A woman has to wear a veil to protect her dignity, but what about her dignity when she lifts her skirt to squat in public spaces?” In spite of being regressive, this campaign was successful in creating a demand for more toilets.
To make up for hindering the ‘socializing’ opportunity women enjoyed with public defecation, many campaigns promoting sanitation involve social interaction among rural women. Also, to ensure women’s empowerment in some village campaigns, households that construct a toilet get a ‘beautiful home’ nameplate for their home where the name of the female family member is mentioned ahead of the male member. This is a matter of great pride for the women.
Although suppressive patriarchal notions must be actively battled for women’s upliftment, sanitation is an important women’s issue too and could be potentially life threatening if ignored. The priorities in the lifestyles of rural and urban India vary greatly. In keeping with this, patriarchal messages may be regressive, but provide a necessary context for villagers to understand the issue.