India’s status as the world leader in poor sanitation is deplorable. It may come as a surprise to many that African countries like Rwanda and Malawi have dealt with the issue of open defecation in a better manner compared to India. 70% of rural Indians, that is around 550 million people answer nature’s call out in the open. Life in urban India may not be as arduous as it is in the villages, but 13% of the population in towns and cities defecate in the open. 
The urban sanitation crisis has proved to be particularly difficult to handle. The population boom and the influx of the multitudes from rural India in search on livelihoods have strained the carrying capacity of cities.
The issue of women’s safety and security when they go out in the open is a matter of great concern. The study, ‘Sanitation Vulnerability: Women's Stress and Struggles for Violence-free Sanitation’ brings out the experiences of poor urban women and their struggle to relieve themselves amidst threats of harassment and assault.
Mapping psycho-social stressors of women
112 women were interviewed in the cities of Pune and Jaipur to understand the stressors – both social and psychological – women face due to lack of sanitation. Individual interviews, focus group discussions along with GIS mapping open defecation sites and public conveniences were all part of the study.
The study found that inadequate sanitation ‘maintains the status quo of unequal gender relations’. While psycho-social stressors vary across age, caste and the location of their bastis (slum), many common and constant hazards remain. The reactions span the entire spectrum from ‘preoccupation with safety to the normalization of harassment’.
The many faces of harassment
Harassment was not limited to young girls or widows, married ladies had to face the music as well. They often kept the details to themselves in order to avoid conflict at home.
However, women cannot be looked at as one single entity here. Belonging to the dominant community had its advantages. Women from the majority community in some of the slums in Jaipur said they had no fear of going out in the open or being harassed. The same does not hold true for women belonging to minority communities or those in the lowest rung of the current social stratification.
While women did not shy away from pointing fingers at mischievous elements from other communities, they blamed outsiders the most. Opportunistic men, they said, waited at spots frequented by the women and attacked them when they least expect it.
Dealing with the threats
Recurrent harassment and its ever-present threat places undue stress on the minds and bodies of the women. To overcome the menace, women have come up with some home-made remedies. Going out in groups is preferred as the chances of shooing away unscrupulous elements are much higher. Apart from this, women also carry stones and spices, anticipating probable attacks.
Women find it extremely embarrassing when someone comes close by while squatting. All they can do then is bury their heads to avoid recognition or stand up right in the middle of their business. Fear of sending out young daughters gets people thinking about constructing toilets within, or near their houses.
To avoid going out more often, women, most often try to control intake of food in order to minimize the output. Women consume less food and water at night and stay away from spicy items to avoid visiting the defecation site at night. Women sometimes take their husbands or sons along with them at nights to stay away from trouble.
Choose the best option: Out in the open or filthy public toilets
The study found out that women in Jaipur went out more in the open compared to the ladies in Pune, many of who used public toilets. Most of these toilets were in shambles with poor lighting and wet floors, making them unsafe for pregnant ladies and older women.
In some places, women had to walk past men’s loos and drinking spots to reach the ladies’ lavatories. Liquor shops close to toilet complexes only make things worse, increasing women’s vulnerability.
Once a woman successfully navigates past these hurdles, she is warmly welcomed by soiled sanitary napkins on the floor while some are tucked in the windows. Most of them lack running water and women have to carry them from home or fill up their cans from tanks close by. Also, you cannot always expect the doors to bolt from the inside, can you?
And miles to go before I pee
Railway lines, canal banks and shrub forests are the spots frequented by women to relieve themselves. More often than not, the path is quite dangerous. From falling off slippery canal banks to risking their limbs and lives beside railway tracks, and not to mention possible attacks from wild men and animals, these women go through hell to cleanse their bowels.
Public toilets are not free to use in most places. Charges can be as high as Re.1 per usage and they do not remain open all day. Despite these constraints, the lack of open defecation sites around urban slums has pushed women to use these dysfunctional public toilets.
Can adequate sanitation curtail gendered violence?
The study team was convinced that an “alteration of gendered social relations is required”. Though women are burdened by the lack of adequate sanitation, provision of the same does not guarantee positively altered gender relations. In the absence of gender-focus, providing sanitation facilities will place the burden of their safety solely on the women.
- While there is no doubt that India needs to buck up on the sanitation front, attention must be given to the various stressors women face on a day-to-day basis.
- The study recommends that sanitation plans should be incorporated into the overall urban development paradigm.
- Concerns of space and survival of the urban poor needs to be addressed – Strong budgetary allocation and conscious local governments are the foremost needs of the hour.
- Merely constructing a toilet is not enough. Maintenance is crucial. The responsibility of maintaining public toilets must be vested on urban local bodies and care should be taken to address the needs of different sections such as the aged, pregnant and challenged women while drawing up plans.
- Mental health should be given due attention and centres need to be established at the community level to help women cope with the various psycho-social stressors they may face.
- A community monitoring process should be set up to monitor the implementation of schemes and programmes instituted for their benefit.
This is based on a yearlong study (2013-2014) 'Sanitation Vulnerability: Women's Stress and Struggles for violence-free sanitation', jointly done by SOPPECOM, and Texas A&M University, and supported by Department for International Development, UK; and The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC)
- India Water Portal
- This story was first published on India Water Portal (http://www.indiawaterportal.org/), an initiative supported by Arghyam (http://www.arghyam.org/). IWP is India’s largest resource and platform focused on water issues.