Having access to adequate sanitation is a luxury that many in the Global North rarely question. But should we see it as a luxury? After all, it was confirmed as a human right by the United Nations in 2010. This human right, however, is virtually meaningless for over a billion people who practice open defecation (OD) [i] 665 million of which live in India.[ii] Throughout India, 49.8% of all households are still practising OD – the highest percentage of any country in the world.[iii]
Not having access to a toilet is, in many ways, a gendered issue, as the impact on the lives of women is different to the impact upon men. This is sometimes the result of biological differences between men and women, such as menstruation or pregnancy, but women are also impacted in ways that are unrelated to biological difference. Specifically, restricted access to adequate sanitation puts women’s safety at risk; women and girls are regularly injured by stones, thorns, snakes or other animals whilst travelling to find a toilet or practice OD.[iv]
Sanitation-related Violence Against Women
Sanitation-related violence against women (VAW) is a recognised, named phenomenon; it’s commonly understood that women are at an increased risk of violence when they don’t have safe and secure toilets.[v] This violence is not only physical: sanitation-related VAW consists of sexual violence, socio-cultural violence, and psychological violence.[vi]
There is considerable evidence that sanitation-related VAW is especially prevalent in India, which can be seen in academic studies and increasing media coverage. The harassment and ‘eve-teasing’ (including whistling, passing explicit comments, singing lewd songs, and inappropriate touching) of Indian women who do not have access to adequate sanitation have been well documented. Women living in the informal settlements of Mumbai, for instance, have revealed that ‘eve-teasing’ was their biggest source of insecurity and anxiety.[vii]
Women in Hyderabad have said that men call women shameless if they are seen relieving themselves, [viii] while girls in Bengaluru are teased and harassed by boys when caught changing or disposing of their sanitary napkins or walking to the toilet.[ix] Moreover, a focus group discussion involving 42 women in the informal settlements of North East Delhi revealed a dominant theme in the women’s responses: fear. [x] These women were afraid of sexual violence; both afraid for themselves and for their female relatives. In the Bhalswa settlement, one woman even commented that it was common to be physically assaulted and raped as a direct result of there being no adequate sanitation.[xi] Women in Uttar Pradesh have also complained of experiencing harassment in the fields they have no choice but to relieve themselves in, reporting that they often fear for their lives.[xii] This fear is not unwarranted, as was tragically illustrated by the devastating high-profile case in Uttar Pradesh where two teenage girls were found hanging from a mango tree having been gang-raped and murdered while searching for somewhere to go to the toilet.[xiii] As a result of such harassment and threats to their safety, women carry a burden of stress, which manifests itself in shame and embarrassment. [xiv] Even carrying a water tumbler (a give-away sign of their intention), or travelling to a toilet causes women in India to feel shame.[xv] Consequently, women often self-regulate their sanitation practices; they often bath half or fully clothed, fulfil their sanitation needs under the cover of darkness, restrict their food and drink intake, seek a secluded place where contact with men is unlikely, or wait until they have somebody to accompany them.[xvi] Unfortunately, many of these practices will put their health and safety at risk.
Sanitation-related VAW should be an important consideration for those undertaking sanitation projects in the Global South. When building sanitation facilities, certain technical considerations can be made to ensure that such facilities have a ‘gender-friendly’ infrastructure. Far too often, sanitation facilities are not built with sanitation-related VAW in mind and women will tend not to use them. There have been reports of men hiding in toilet cubicles at night waiting for women,[xvii] facilities falling into disrepair due to a lack of maintenance and poor infrastructure, facilities being placed in locations that are unsafe for women to travel to, and facilities that don’t provide women with separate, private spaces. Gender-friendly infrastructure, on the other hand, would take the following into consideration: adequate lighting, separate facilities for men and women, security, privacy, adequate water supply, regular maintenance, facilities to manage menstruation, and a safe location.[xviii] Importantly, providing sanitation facilities that are designed to inhibit sanitation-related VAW increases the likeliness they will be used, which also works towards reducing open defecation rates.
The ecosan school toilets built by Sanitation First are constructed with such considerations in mind. For example, Sanitation First’s school ecosan blocks provide separate, private facilities for girls. This is especially important when girls begin menstruating, as having toilets that offer privacy significantly reduces levels of absenteeism and increases the numbers of girls enrolling by up to 15%. Furthermore, specifically designed lessons and training about the importance of hygiene and sanitation provides children with a deeper understanding about these practices. This, in turn, empowers them to share what they have learnt with their families and wider communities, setting up an awareness and expectation that goes way beyond the school gates.
Sanitation First also builds sustainable ecosan toilets in family homes and communities, providing entire families with safe and clean places to go to the toilet. This eradicates the need for women to make themselves vulnerable by travelling to secluded areas in search of an open defecation site. It also reduces dangerous self-regulating practices, such as withholding from eating and drinking, which can lead to dehydration and subsequent urinary tract infections. As women’s participation in sanitation projects ensures that sanitation-related VAW is taken into consideration, Sanitation First’s engagement with women’s self-help groups is a significant aspect of their work.
Social Dynamics in India and Sanitation-related Violence Against Women
While sanitation-related VAW occurs in many countries, certain observations can be made about the relationship between social dynamics in India and this particular kind of violence. Indian women’s vulnerability to sanitation-related VAW can be linked to caste oppression, the normalisation of violence against poor women in Indian society, the systematic failure of the Indian state to provide adequate sanitation,[xix] and gendered social norms of cleanliness. The acceptability of sanitation-related VAW has actually increased over time and is implicitly condoned by some Indian men.[xx] In fact, gender relations and social norms exist within Indian society that legitimizes this violence. It is, therefore, crucial to consider sanitation-related VAW when constructing programmes that aim for transformative change.
Women in India are and have long been, at the centre of sanitation debates and issues. While women in the Global North casually use the term “dying for the toilet”, women in India are literally doing so. In fact, sanitation is now so important that women in the Northwest of India have started to place toilets on their list of priorities when seeking a marriage partner.[xxi] Sanitation First recognises that providing adequate sanitation is an issue of privacy, dignity, and safety for women, making their work in schools, families, and communities vital for the reduction of sanitation-related VAW.
This post was written for Sanitation First by Isis Barei-Guyot, who has recently graduated from Manchester University with an MSc in International Development.
[i] United Nations. (2014). Access to sanitation. [online] Available at: http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/sanitation.shtml [Accessed 17 Feb. 2018].
[ii] Reddy, B. and Snehalatha, M. (2011). Sanitation and Personal Hygiene: What Does It Mean to Poor and Vulnerable Women?. Indian Journal of Gender Studies,18(3), pp.381-404.
[iii] Ghosh, A. and Cairncross, S. (2014). The uneven progress of sanitation in India. Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development, 4(1), p.15.
[iv] Sahoo, K., Hulland, K., Caruso, B., Swain, R., Freeman, M., Panigrahi, P. and Dreibelbis, R. (2015). Sanitation-related psychosocial stress: A grounded theory study of women across the life-course in Odisha, India. Social Science & Medicine, 139, pp.80-89. [v] Massey, K. (2011). Insecurity and Shame: Exploration of the impact of the lack of sanitation on women in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. Briefing Note. Department for International Development.
[vi] House, S., Ferron, S., Sommer, M. and Cavill, S. (2014). Violence, Gender and WASH: A Practitioner’s Toolkit -Making water, sanitation and hygiene safer through improved programming and services.London: WaterAid/SHARE.
[vii] Belur, J., Parikh, P., Daruwalla, N., Joshi, R. and Fernandes, R. (2016). Perceptions of gender-based violence around public toilets in Mumbai slums. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 41(1-2), pp.63-78.
[viii] Reddy, B. and Snehalatha, M. (2011). Sanitation and Personal Hygiene: What Does It Mean to Poor and Vulnerable Women?. Indian Journal of Gender Studies,18(3), pp.381-404.
[ix] Nallari, A. (2015). “All we want are toilets inside our homes!”: The critical role of sanitation in the lives of urban poor adolescent girls in Bengaluru, India . Environment and Urbanization,27(1), pp.73-88.
[x] Lennon, S. (2011). Fear and anger: Perceptions of risks related to sexual violence against women linked to water and sanitation in Delhi, India. Briefing Note. SHARE (Sanitation and Hygiene Applied Research for Equity) and WaterAid, UK.
[xi] Lennon, S. (2011). Fear and anger: Perceptions of risks related to sexual violence against women linked to water and sanitation in Delhi, India. Briefing Note. SHARE (Sanitation and Hygiene Applied Research for Equity) and WaterAid, UK.
[xii] McCarthy, J. (2014). How A Lack Of Toilets Puts India’s Women At Risk Of Assault.[online] NPR. Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/06/09/319529037/indias-rape-uproar-ignites-demand-to-end-open-defecation [Accessed 24 May 2017].
[xiii] Frost, B., Byanyima, W., Woods, C. and Alipui, N. (2014). Two girls died looking for a toilet. This should make us angry, not embarrassed. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jun/01/girls-toilet-rape-murder-anger-embarrassment [Accessed 15 Feb. 2018].
[xiv] Hirve, S., Lele, P., Sundaram, N., Chavan, U., Weiss, M., Steinmann, P. and Juvekar, S. (2015). Psychosocial stress associated with sanitation practices: experiences of women in a rural community in India. Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development, 5(1), pp.115-126.
[xv] Hirve, S., Lele, P., Sundaram, N., Chavan, U., Weiss, M., Steinmann, P. and Juvekar, S. (2015). Psychosocial stress associated with sanitation practices: experiences of women in a rural community in India. Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development, 5(1), pp.115-126.
[xvi] Sahoo, K., Hulland, K., Caruso, B., Swain,R., Freeman, M., Panigrahi, P. and Dreibelbis, R. (2015). Sanitation-related psychosocial stress: A grounded theory study of women across the life-course in Odisha, India. Social Science & Medicine, 139, pp.80-89.
[xvii] Lennon, S. (2011). Fear and anger: Perceptions of risks related to sexual violence against women linked to water and sanitation in Delhi, India. Briefing Note. SHARE (Sanitation and Hygiene Applied Research for Equity) and WaterAid, UK.
[xviii] Belur, J., Parikh, P., Daruwalla, N., Joshi, R. and Fernandes, R. (2016). Perceptions of gender-based violence around public toilets in Mumbai slums. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 41(1-2), pp.63-78.
[xix] McFarlane, C. (2014). The everywhere of sanitation: violence, oppression and the body. [online] Open Democracy. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/openindia/colinmcfarlane/ everywhere-of-sanitation-violence-oppression-and-body [Accessed 18 Feb. 2017].
[xx] Srinivasan, R. (2015). Lack of Toilets and Violence Against Indian Women: Empirical Evidence and Policy Implications. SSRN Electronic Journal.
[xxi] Jewitt, S. and Ryley, H. (2014). It’s a girl thing: Menstruation, school attendance, spatial mobility and wider gender inequalities in Kenya.Geoforum, 56, pp.137-147.
Hillenbrand, E., Karim, N., Mohanraj, P. and Wu, D. (2015). Measuring gender-transformative change: A review of literature and promising practices. [online] CARE. Available at: https://www.care.org/sites/default/files/documents/working_paper_aas_gt_change_measurement_fa_lowres.pdf [Accessed 22 Feb. 2018].
United Nations. (2010). Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 28 July 2010.[online] Available at: http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/64/292 [Accessed 15 May 2017].