No Toilet! No Bride! Did I hear right? Yes! A toilet might be just a basic facility taken for granted in the western world but it’s quite a forthright statement and courageous demand in the context of rural and semi urban India. And it’s a demand now being put forward by unmarried young Indian women in the rural and semi urban areas of the northern Indian state of Haryana.
There’s a slogan for a campaign which goes by the same title. Young women in Haryana are demanding that prospective grooms have to have a toilet in their homes if they want to get married! Indian women in rural and semi urban areas have begun to demand basic rights – rights they ought to be already enjoying! This campaign which started some years ago in the state has involved young Indian women and is very encouraging. The initiative of the Government, supported by civil society organizations seems to have made some progress in bringing about much needed social change. The Ministry even offers financial incentives to any individual who installs a toilet.
Sanitation and hygiene are major problems affecting women in the rural and semi urban areas of India. Most households simply don’t have toilets. Women and girls have to go out into the open fields or rivers to relieve themselves. More than 122 million household have no toilet and 33% lack access to latrines, over 50% of the population (638 million) defecate in the open. A very inconvenient and embarrassing operation – women and girls wait for an appropriate time – either in the late evening or very early morning – to venture to these “open” toilets which sometimes take them as long as 15 to 20 minutes to reach! Thousands of women and girls also queue up to use a mucky community toilet which, even if available, is likely to malfunction. Sometimes the water in the toilets is also dirty which can be problematic especially during menstruation. There are many girls who drop out of school because of inadequate sanitation facilities. Once a girl starts menstruating the unavailability of a private and clean toilet to take care of her personal hygiene and sanitary needs can be very stressful and inconvenient. In addition to this, many water borne diseases including cholera, dysentery, typhoid and giardia are also spread due to insanitary surroundings. And women and girls are more susceptible as a result of their active and direct role in water collection, washing and other domestic activities involving water.
Water scarcity is an equally severe problem plaguing women and girls more than men as women and girls are basically the providers, collectors, users, transporters and managers of the most valuable asset –WATER – for the entire family. It is women and girls who undertake the strenuous task of carrying water back home from sources usually located at long distances from their houses for daily needs like drinking, cooking, cleaning, personal hygiene as well as for work on their irrigation land. The men merely use the water brought by these women. Women spend 1/3 of their day collecting and carrying water, time that could be spent more productively on generating income, going to school (in the case of young girls) and other types of activities. They carry heavy jars or pots of water on their heads as many as six times a day. The teasing, violence and attacks they are prone to while walking to and from the water sources is yet another problem. Women’s basic safety and security is at stake when going to collect water.
Why do these women have to bear the greater brunt in a country where water is being mismanaged? One of the major problems is water pollution from the dumping of untreated sewage, and industrial effluents into the rivers. Overuse of groundwater is very common in the country. Conserving water, rain water harvesting, and the effective treatment of human, agricultural and industrial waste are all problems that need to be addressed. New innovations for water treatment and management are much needed.
Take for instance the water wheel prototype – tried and tested in the northern state of Rajasthan by a US based social entrepreneur Cynthia Keonig this year and designed to ease the burden of water collection by women and girls. Water can be transported from one place to another by rolling a plastic tub (fixed with a wheel) which carries 90 litres of water instead of the 10 litres of water carried in pots on the heads of the women and girls. This would ease a great deal of their tasks and the resultant ailments and would also free up their time for other productive activities. Cynthia plans to have the project rolling by the end of this year.
Although the government, civil society and individuals are taking steps in this direction, much still remains to be done. Public sector investment in water, sanitation and hygiene needs to be increased. More political commitment at a higher level is also required. Effective policies as well as maintenance and monitoring systems are essential. If the lives of women are improved, this will benefit not only the entire family, but society and the nation too and make an undoubted contribution to the advancement of the whole Asian subcontinent.