by Jayati Ramakrishnan
At a November 2014 panel about women’s rights in Portland, Oregon, Indian novelist and columnist Shobhaa De talked about the ways women still struggle for equality in India. One of her most staggering statistics was about women in rural parts of India who risk getting raped when they go out into the fields to use the bathroom.
India has a poor track record when it comes to providing sanitary services - a problem that affects women on many levels.
While some Indian cities offer public toilets, they often go unused or are poorly maintained. It’s even worse in rural areas, where finding a public toilet is a rare occurrence, and most people have to use nearby fields to relieve themselves. While it’s a common sight to drive through the countryside, or even major cities, and see men urinating on the side of the road, women do not have the same freedom to do so. Therefore, many women in rural Indian communities find themselves venturing into fields, either before dawn or after dusk, to relieve themselves.
Going to the restroom out in the open can be uncomfortable for women, but has the potential to be violent and even deadly.
This issue received a lot of attention in 2014, when, in a village in the state of Uttar Pradesh, two teenage girls were raped and hanged while they had gone out to use the bathroom.
The shocking incident, driven into the minds of people all over the world through the images that circulated along with the story, raised some important points:
Women in India face elevated threats when they attempt to perform a basic function, and that’s a problem. Many women go out together, and while they attempt to avoid encountering others by going out early in the morning or late at night, they still risk being watched by men, or, in many cases, even more dire consequences.
The Huffington Post reported that Uttar Pradesh police official Ashish Gupta said the majority of the state’s sexual assaults take place when women go to the fields to use the bathroom.
“More than 60 percent of the rapes in the state occur when the victims step out to relieve themselves because they do not have toilets at home,” Gupta said. “It is difficult to give protection to every woman who goes out into the open to relieve herself.
It seems a logical step, in the face of incidents such as this one, to begin constructing proper toilets for women in India, especially in rural areas. Beyond the issues of safety, there are obvious sanitary and health benefits to constructing toilets.
In 2007, the Indian government launched a campaign called “No Toilet, No Bride,” which encouraged the families of young women to refuse to let their daughters marry men who couldn’t provide them with an indoor toilet.
A few parties have pointed out some underlying issues with getting rid of the system of using outdoor toilets. Blogger Chandni Patel noted that the suggestion of building indoor toilets for women and limiting them from going outdoors implied that women, not their assailants, should be the ones changing their behavior.
“You cannot ask one [...] gender to stay inside, in the name of protection,” Patel said. “A woman should be able to feel safe at any given time, and should not have to think twice before venturing out.”
Patel added that taking away the ability for women to go out in groups may limit, or even eliminate, the only social interaction that some of those women get in a day. “Individual toilets will neglect [women’s] role in public and will further diminish them to the confines of their homes,” Patel said. She goes on to add that many women are sexually assaulted within the confines of their own homes, by people they know.
Patel’s points have merit, and it’s possible that the problem of sexual assault in India can be oversimplified to one problem - when, in reality, there are many factors at play. Nevertheless, the lack of toilets in India creates a host of issues, both social and sanitary, and building them would alleviate many of those problems.
Sexual assault is the fault of the assailant, not the victim. That said, it’s important to think of ways to make life safer for women who live in areas with a high prevalence of rape and sexual harassment. Building toilets for women could be one of those solutions.