“No toilet, no bride”: Why lacking a toilet in rural India puts women at risk of sexual assault
By Jayitri Smiles
Grama Chethana is not concerned about arranging his daughter’s marriage to a man living in their south Indian village. His future son-in-law’s income, education status and star sign does not matter that much either.
For Mr. Chethana, the search for his daughter’s husband will end when he finds a man with a sanitary toilet.
“I will only arrange a marriage for my daughter with a man who owns a toilet. It is not safe to send her anywhere else,” he says.
Since 2012, the ‘No Toilet, No Bride’ government campaign has led to a number of concerned families prioritising access to toilets when searching for suitors.
It is a simple action which is helping increase the number of households with working toilets.
For women in India, a clean and nearby toilet is much more than comfort and convenience. Their installation is often a matter of safety, health and equality.
A recent spike in rapes and assaults has highlighted the difficulties women experience in underprivileged rural areas and city slums.
With approximately half of India’s households lacking toilet access, a large number of women face security dangers when travelling to meet a basic bodily function.
In Soorshetti Koppa, a rural village in the south Indian state of Karnataka, approximately one third of the households own a toilet. For the remaining villagers, including more than 1,400 women, open defecation is the only option.
Women in Soorshetti Koppa travel in groups to open sugar cane fields where they are hidden amongst the tall grass and crops. Watching for snakes in the dry and dusty earth is the least of their problems.
“Most women will travel together at 4:30 in the morning to go to the toilet,” explains local woman Vandana Bhirkoppa, who is part of the morning routine.
“At this time the men have not arrived yet so it is still safe. We will then hold onto our bladders for the remainder of the day until it is dark.”
Mrs. Bhirkoppa explains how men watch and follow women who visit the fields during daytime. She also knows of women in the village who have been assaulted and raped when relieving themselves alone.
Moving together in the safety of darkness and tolerating unnatural bowel movements is one of a few solutions for these women.
In Soorshetti Koppa, many women do not believe the men will change their violent behaviour.
Constable P. Y. Kali patrols the region which the village lies within for the Karnataka State Police. He is frustrated by cultural taboos and ineffective systems which fail to protect and defend women under threat.
He is one of 40 officers in the north-western Karnataka region which regulates over 500,000 people across 98 villages. There are only three female officers on the force.
“We know there are lots of rape cases which go unreported in our region. Women are too embarrassed and ashamed to report to a police force full of men,” says Constable Kali.
“Many women will be abandoned and tortured by their families if they admit to being raped. They will never be married, which is often more shameful than what has already happened.”
Sexual violence created national outrage when two teenage girls were allegedly raped and hanged when travelling to a toilet in the state of Uttar Pradesh during 2014.
After the incident, an involved police official told the Huffington Post more than 60 per cent of rapes in the state occur when women travel to relieve themselves.
Over the past five years, the government has introduced new laws to curb issues of violence against women. The definition of rape has been broadened and new crimes include stalking and voyeurism.
Despite new laws, rapes and assaults are not declining in rural India.
“A weak police force means men know they will get away with crimes,” says Constable Kali.
Safety fears compromising the health of women across India
Women who are holding onto their bladders for unnaturally long periods of time are at greater risk of infection.
In Soorshetti Koppa, women are dehydrating themselves to help keep off their bodily functions until evening.
“I am so scared to go to the fields during the day that I don’t drink and chai or water until night time,” says Sneha, a 31 year old woman in the village.
Open defecation is also a health concern. Professor Ravi Savarirayan, who works with the Yatra Foundation in rural India, says women are much more likely to get infections when around open sewage.
“So many villages in India still don’t have any plumbing. This leads to a much higher chance of getting sick with tuberculosis and diarrhoea,” says Professor Savarirayan.
Professor Savarirayan, who has built a number of non-for-profit schools, has also noticed that a number of girls drop out of government education around puberty.
“A toilet is needed not just for a place of security, but also a place where girls have privacy during their menstrual cycle. Girls won’t come to school unless they have access,” he says.
Open defecation can also stunt children’s mental development.
“If kids are getting diarrhoea and tuberculosis they’re not going to learn,” says Professor Savarirayan.
Using toilets yet to be accepted in rural India
A number of rural Indians still remain sceptical of toilets and ignorant to their potential benefits.
India has the highest rate of open defecation in the world at 50 per cent according to the World Health Organisation.
With toilets a rare asset in many rural villages, using them still remains strange and unnatural for many.
Research has indicated that even those families who have installed latrines will often choose a field or lake over using the new appliance.
A report by Sanitation Quality, Use, Access and Trends shows in 40 per cent of households which have a working toilet, at least one family member still chooses open defecation.
“When we first installed toilets into our schools they weren’t used,” says Professor Savarirayan.
“We realised we needed to educate our students on how to use toilets and also how to keep them clean.”
A lack of understanding about the benefits of toilets is stopping progress in its tracks.
“Men do not care about the issue, they will go to the toilet anywhere in the village with no shame,” says Mrs. Bhirkoppa from Soorshetti Koppa.
The idea that sanitation is a ‘female issue’ is stopping men from supporting access to much needed facilities.
Patriarchs are often unwilling to take out loans for an appliance they don’t want to use. Men often see loans for toilets as the responsibility of women’s self-help groups. However, women in villages are unlikely to put their own needs first.
“Our loans are never spent on ourselves,” Mrs. Bhirkoppa, leader of a self-help group, says.
“We must first take care of our husband’s business, children’s education, festivals and marriage. Purchasing toilets is not a priority.”
It is this mindset which has hindered the success of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Clean India Initiative.
While pledging to build ‘toilets before temples’ his payback scheme is yet to take off. The Clean India Initiative, which pays locals back for the installation of a toilet, is difficult to implement.
Families are only paid back by the government once photographic proof of a toilet’s construction has been provided. Taking out microfinance loans to initially construct the facility is often a hassle or simply impossible.
Mr Chethana explains how his village of Nagnur has constructed toilets.
“We take loans through our local non-government organisation BAIF. Without BAIF it’s impossible to construct toilets,” he says.
“The situation is improving and awareness is increasing. The problem is there is no land so we can only build far away from home… and there is no sewage system to construct toilets inside.”
Grassroots solutions leading the way to safe access
Not-for-profit organisations and entrepreneurs continue innovating ways to overcome space and cost restrictions.
Scientists and engineers are creating low-cost, biodegradable sanitary systems which are easily maintained in rural villages.
Organisations like the Yatra Foundation are also building toilets specifically for girls and teaching them how to use and clean the facilities.
Additionally, campaigns like ‘Right to Pee’ and ‘No Toilet, No Bride’ highlight the issue and create greater understanding of women’s needs.
Despite these efforts, there is still a long way to go.
“I don’t think there’s been a lot of progress made in the really poor villages of India,” says Professor Savarirayan.
Despite the slow and difficult progress, women are slowly being heard on the issue.
Mr. Chethana – who continues asking tough questions to his daughter’s potential husbands – understands the role toilets play in improving the health and safety of women in India.
“When I find her a family with a toilet, I know I have protected my daughter and given her a safe future.”
[Interviews with Grama Chethana, Vandana Bhirkoppa and P. Y. Kali conducted via Marathi/English translator. Feature photo of Jayshree Chethana by Jayitri Smiles.]