We Need Toilets – But It Has Nothing To Do With The Shame Of Women!

In an effort to convince rural Indians of the value of toilets, the shame of women going outdoors is being used as a trigger. Are we unwittingly propagating traditional norms about women's 'honour' being indoors?

In an effort to convince rural Indians of the value of toilets, the ‘shame’ of women going outdoors is being used as a trigger. Are we unwittingly propagating traditional norms about women’s ‘honour’ being indoors?

The well intentional Swacch Bharat Abhiyan began in 2014 after the re-christening of its predecessor Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, with the noble aim of ending open defecation in India. The Abhiyan since then has achieved a lot of success across India with several districts having been declared open defecation free.

Open defecation is an old practice in the country which now owing to the rapid pace of urbanisation and less and less land left for open defecation manifests in the form of faeces discarded by humans at streets, corners, and roads of rural and peri-urban India. So abhorrent is this practise that in a novel published by Mulk Raj Anand, called Untouchable in 1935, he describes an Indian as “kala aadmi Zameen pe hugne wala” (a dark-skinned who defecates in public).

Surprising as it may be, the practice still remains current in many parts of India – sometimes due to the lack of infrastructure and at other times owing to the ingrained habit, which is hard to break.

I am writing this not to describe the anatomy of the Swacch Bharat Mission (SBM) as much as to analyse the methodology adopted to achieve the goal of ending it. Often, the behavioural change to use the toilets built under SBM is done by triggering activities which can be as varied as a tour through the open defecation zones of the village with villagers to the mixing of the faeces in water and demonstrating to the villagers as to what happens to the water sources when we defecate openly.

Reinforcing the subordinate status of women?

However, at some places this triggering activity seems to have gone terribly wrong. Though it has managed to achieve the goal set by SBM, it has re-enforced another kind of social blight – the subjugated status of women.

In many places in India the implementation of the SBM has involved shaming of women and that has found space even in the advertisements aired on national media. They are primarily on the following lines:

“Build toilets or the girls will be raped as they step out to defecate in the open”

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“Build toilet because women defecate in public and it’s a shame” (while it’s no shame for the men folk)

Toilet as a dowry

Built toilets as women who cover the face with the veil can’t expose their bottoms in the open

These are only a few examples which go around in trigger activities for the eventual construction and use of toilets.

Knowingly or unknowingly, this has re-enforced the deeply entrenched patriarchal set up in the country. Toilets are seen as an “izzat”, “aabaroo” of the women who must be confined inside as her going out calls for various ills like rape, molestation, shame to the family. It is saddening to see that the purpose of a toilet for sanitation is defeated by this further defiling of the minds of the community against the free status of women. It brings about additional justification for women to be confined indoors as the government programs deem it fit to use such lopsided trigger activities.

While it may be true that building of toilets and a facility to defecate at home does avert untoward incidents like rape, molestation etc just as it averts diarrhoeal deaths, but to tie the construction of toilets to prevent women’s shame is a patently wrong concept and must be done away with. Many women have given their lives’ hard earned savings for the construction of toilets in villages as they are aware of the perils of open defecation, but using toilet as a tool to confine them back home will be a big blow to the concept of women empowerment.

Though this may appear a very trivial issue, it has psychological ramifications for adolescent girls who might find their wings clipped based on this practice. It is a fact that the lack of toilets in village schools causes a massive dropping out of adolescent girls. The antidote for this is to promote sanitation as the basic need and to not tie it with the dignity and ‘shame’ of women. The toilet needs to be a tool of empowerment for women and not an excuse for their confinement. Every scheme or programme must be tailored to the special needs of women and must look at the gender empowerment issue very holistically, lest we may be giving from one hand and taking from another.

Image via Pixabay

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About the Author

Tamiyanti Chandra

Career Bureaucrat/Mother/Wife/ Workhorse/Hedonist writing under the pen name Tamiyanti Chandra read more...

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