Shame, dignity & a clean loo

Posted: February 19, 2011

Early today morning, I was unable to sleep any longer and instead of tossing and turning in bed, decided to go down to the beach. On the way, I saw a woman squatting – and going about her morning business. Yes, not a pleasant sight first thing in the morning, and indeed, the first thought that came to me was, why does she have to do this in full public view, on a brightly lit street? Can’t she go to a more secluded corner?

The next instant, I realised how strongly my privilege was speaking. The privilege of always having had a clean bathroom to use; the privilege of being able to pop into a coffee shop or fast food joint just to use the loo, knowing that even if I didn’t buy anything, my good clothes would get me by.

The shameful thing about what I saw this morning was not that I had to see this woman defecating in public view – the shameful thing was that 60 years after independence, this Indian woman, like thousands of others, has no access to safe, clean and private sanitation facilities. As for why she chose to squat in the glare of a street lamp, perhaps it was safer than going to a dark corner in the pre-sunrise morning, where god knows what creepy-crawlies could be lurking.

It’s also true that in this city, like every other city, public toilets are totally inadequate for the large low-income population who don’t have toilets, nor do they address safety concerns.

None of this is news to most of us, and yet, it rarely impinges on our consciousness. Why? Have you ever considered why we don’t see poor women freely using the streets to urinate or defecate, the way men do? The answer is, because they don’t. They hold it in until late night or early morning, so that they can have a little dignity left to them. They risk urinary infection and bear discomfort. THAT is why we don’t see them.

And as for me, I had no business judging her or wrinkling up my nose. Women’s access to sanitation (and thereby, freedom to travel, work and live in safety) has been an integral part of the women’s movement in India, and the need for it was brought to me forcefully today morning.

More information here at the India Sanitation Portal

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