Building 20 Million Toilets Is Not Enough To Keep Women Safe In This Country

Posted on July 23, 2015 in Girls Count

By Pallavi Ghosh:

A 17-year-old girl- Khoobu Kumari- was found hanging from her house ceiling earlier this month on July 4 in Dumka town in Jharkhand. The teenager decided to end her life because her parents refused to comply with her pleas of having a toilet constructed. A BBC report estimates that around 300 million women and girls comprise the total population of open defecators.

A woman in Dharavi, Mumbai. Image source: Thomas Galvez

Open defecation has become a matter of shame for a country dreaming to bloom into a superpower. Around half the population- a staggering 594 million people- is known to defecate in the open as per UNICEF data.

However, other than earning India the wrong kind of attention, open defecation has other ramifications; one of them being violence against women. Rakesh Johri, a senior fellow at The Energy Resource Institute, estimates that open defecation “exposes a third of the nation’s women to the risk of rape and sexual assault.”

Water Aid- an international organisation working on improving access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene-further explains as to how the potential threat of violence outside affects life choices on an everyday basis. In a study conducted by the organisation in 2011, it was found that women living in slums in Delhi and Bhopal tend to eat and drink less so that they do not feel the need to relieve themselves often.

In 2014, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s in his Independence Day address to the nation expressed concerns regarding safety of rural women, who go out to defecate- “The poor womenfolk of the village wait for the night; until darkness descends, they can’t go out to defecate. Can’t we just make arrangements for toilets for the dignity of our mothers and sisters?” As a result, constructing 20 million toilets became the dream project for the year.

But is having more toilets the answer to all our woes? No. For even if toilets are constructed within household premises or at public places, as long as the public space is marked out as masculine, violence against women in public spaces is going to haunt India anyway. The polarisation of the domestic and public space as feminine and masculine, respectively, is what makes women who venture out being characterised as unfeminine, morally loose and thus assailable or punishable. So much so that even the most natural and obvious functions- walks, defecation, shopping, travelling, etc. – that entail venturing out into the already overtly masculine public space becomes dangerous.

According to a 2011 Thomson Reuters’ Trustlaw Women’s survey on the country-wise perception of danger, India is the fourth most dangerous place for women. Unless issues of women’s safety are effectively addressed, social bias against them will continue to exist, leaving the approximately 6 million women who inhabit India today vulnerable to violence.

Let Khoobu not become just a statistic but the precursor of a change we urgently need.