Will access to toilets guarantee women's security in rural India?

The Badaun rape incident shows how vulnerable women are to sexual violence when there are no toilets in homes

By Jitendra
Published: Saturday 07 June 2014

Basara village in Haryana's Panipat district achieved 100 per cent sanitation coverage many years ago. Residents attribute reduction in sexual assaults on women in recent years to availability of toilets within homes (photo by Jitendra)

The shocking incident of gang rape and murder of two minor girls in Uttar Pradesh's Badaun district has drawn horrified reactions from leaders across the world. While most of the media attention has been on the apathy and insensitivity shown by the Akhilesh Yadav government and the police force, what is also of concern is that the incident happened when the girls had stepped out of their home at night to ease themselves.

The incident that stirred the conscience of the nation has once again exposed the poor sanitation facilities in rural India that makes women vulnerable to such extreme violence.

Will construction of toilets in every rural home, then, avert such incidents? There has been no study undertaken but there are some indicators.

Take Panipat district in Haryana where police admit that there is a significant decrease in complaints of women being assaulted while easing themselves in the open.

“The word “shauch” (latrine) is now not mentioned in complaints which was the trend earlier when women registered complaints of sexual assault,” says Hari Prasad, assistant sub-inspector at Samalkha police station in Panipat.

The observation does not mean crimes against women have ceased, but it certainly points to the fact the improved sanitation facility has lowered the trend of sexual assault on village women.

Unfortunately, leaders who visited the families of the two victims in Badaun to condole with them, only spoke of caste crimes, not sanitation.

According to a report, in Katra Sadatganj village in Badaun where the incident happened, out of 3,500 families, only 173 have toilets; of these, only100 are functional.

In contrast, villages which have achieved open defecation-free (ODF) status in Samalkha tell a different story.

A dalit populated village, Basara, is one of the first villages in Samalkha which won president's award for achieving total sanitation and won the Nirmal Gram award in 2008.

Residents of the village claim incidents of sexual assault on their women has stopped since they built toilets under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, a flagship programme to end open defecation.

“Ninety per cent of our village's population of 1,500 are dalits.  We achieved 100 per cent sanitation coverage many years ago, and this has resulted in a decline in sexual assault cases against women during open defecation,” says Mahesh Kumar, the village head.

The situation in the panchayat adjoining Basara, Raksheda, tells other side of the story. The minority-dominated village has still not achieved ODF status. Women here face a perilous situation. “Cases of sexual assault are mentioned from time to time during discussions among villagers,” claims Nawab Ali, husband of village head, Jatoon Khatoon. Ali says he has been trying to push for building of toilets but was getting no cooperation from the government.

Panipat is one of the best performing districts of Haryana where nearly 85 per cent households have toilets when the last check was made in December, last year. Haryana as a whole has also performed much better in comparison with other states. According to the ministry of drinking water and sanitation, Haryana has covered more than 75 per cent of its households under the sanitation drive. 
Read more toilet movement
Mission possible 

No access to sanitation

It is no secret that India is the world's capital when it comes to open defection. More than half of all the people in the world who have no access to toilets are in India.

According to the latest NSSO report, nearly 60 per cent rural population has no access to toilets. According to World Health Organization's (WHO) in 2012 report, about 626 million Indians defecate in the open, compared with 14 million in China.

According to a report by Water Aid in 2012, nine  out of 10 women and girls claimed facing harassment when going out for open defecation in Bhopal.

Lack of sanitation is a big drain on health and human resources also. According a World Bank 2010 study, India has been losing $50 billion a year because of infant mortality and hygiene-related diseases

Poor dalit women most vulnerable

Dalits are mostly landless people and their women are often sexually assaulted when they ease themselves in the open. Their landless status means they have no place to construct toilets even when they are listed as beneficiaries under government welfare scheme. They have to ease themselves on other people's land and face harassment.
A Lucknow-based people's organisation, National Movement for Land, Labour and Justice (NMLLJ), has been documenting these problems across India. According to it, 90 per cent dalits are landless or marginal farmers having less than 0.4 ha of land per household. Nearly 86 per cent of dalits are agriculture labourers.

“Since 2011, 46 per cent of total agriculture women labourers have been gang raped. Most of the incidents occurred when they went out to ease themselves,” says Arun Khote, national convener of NMLLJ.

“The incident of Badaun district is a symptom of a deep malaise. The condition of the landless poor is even more aggravated when they are banned from using others' land for defecation; sexual assaults then become inevitable,” he adds.

Precious wife
In Ladawa village of Hisar, 35-year old Surajbhan, turned abusive when this correspondent asked him if he had a toilet in his house. He then went in and shut the large but damaged wooden doors.

There is a reason for Surajbhan's aggression. The sex ratio in his village is skewed and for this reason he bought himself a wife from West Bengal by paying Rs 2 lakh. To protect her, he constructed a toilet inside his house so that his wife does not have to go out. Everyone in the village knows his story.

On persistent questioning and being assured that this correspondent did not mean any harm, Surajbhan relented and spoke a few words.

“Lakh rupaya bhi phoonko aur apni ijjat ko bahar bhi dekhane ke liye bhejoo? (I have spent lakhs to get myself a wife. How can I compromise on her dignity?)” asks Surajbhan in a gruff voice.

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