Save women first, Mr Modi. Then Swachh Bharat
130 million of our households lack toilets and women and girls often have no other option than to venture out to relieve themselves.
- Total Shares
It's 4am in the village. It is dark. The sun is not likely to show up for another couple of hours. It is the perfect time for Lajjo and her three daughters to go to the fields or to the railways track that crosses through their village and relieve themselves. They are worried that if they do not hurry, they might have wait another 15 hours till nightfall to do the needful. Though Lajjo knows that it may not be safe to venture into the fields at this time she is compelled to brave the risk of being bitten by snakes or being eaten up by a hyena because she knows that if she doesn't go out there now, she and her daughters may not be able to "hold on" till dusk.
This is not the story of just one rural household but the state of 130 million of India's households that lack toilets and women and girls often have no other option than to venture out - often at night and alone - to relieve themselves. At a time when the government of India talks about Smart Cities, Digital India and #SelfiesWithDaughter, statistics indicate that 60 per cent of all houses without toilets in the world are in India and despite rising incomes and living standards from India's two-decade-old economic boom, India still has an estimated 626 million people who live in homes without toilets, which means that nearly half of India's population practices "open defecation." According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the practice has dire consequences for health - especially for the healthy development of children.
When people defecate in fields and other open places where poor children also play, the children are inadvertently exposed to parasites and bacteria that lead to physical and cognitive development problems and higher mortality rates.
These in turn jeopardise the country's future economic potential. Globally, water-borne diseases kill more children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Waterborne diseases are caused due to the lack of safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. It is estimated that annually, waterborne diseases affect about 37.7 million Indians. Out of this, 1.5 million children are estimated to die of diarrhoea alone.
The statistics are more alarming at the school level. In India, only 58.82 per cent schools have separate toilets for girls. Some schools have only one single toilet, which is most often, is unclean. Single toilets increase the risk of not only disease transmission, but also sexual harassment.
Many girls opt to drop out of school due to the lack of proper toilet facilities. It is especially true in the case of adolescent girls who skip school for five to six days every month, during their menstruation. This hampers their education and leads them to drop out of school completely. The school completion rates are a mere 34 per cent for girls, compared to 49 per cent for boys. Proper sanitation facilities in schools are critical for improving the rate of completion of studies at school for the girls.
Since the May 2014 incident, when two girls, aged 14 and 15, were found gang-raped and hanged after they went to relieve themselves in the dark, women in rural India have been gripped by a new fear.
Lajjo complains that when there are no standing crops in the fields, there is really no privacy for them as the men in their village can see them from all sides and there is nowhere to hide. She also says that she and her teenage daughters are scared every time they go out to defecate as they do not know who could be watching and waiting for them out there.
Women have finally started protesting against this lack of dignity and there have been reports that several young women are reluctant to marry into a family, which does not have a proper toilet and bathroom. That the situation is getting out of hand is amplified by the tragic incident that took place in Dumka, a rural area of Jharkhand, where a teenage girl ended her life by hanging herself because her family refused to build an indoor toilet.
The distraught girl, Khushboo Kumari, a BA part one student, felt extreme humiliation and loss of dignity because she was forced to defecate in the open space outside her house. Talking about this tragic incident, the deputy inspector general of police, DB Sharma said, "This incident is an eye-opener as it happened in the midst of our Swachhta Abhiyan..."
The issue is so critical that it featured prominently in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first Independence Day speech, in which the prime minister said, India should ensure toilets for all within four years.
"We are in the 21st century and yet there is no dignity for women as they have to go out in the open to defecate and they have to wait for darkness to relieve themselves," Modi said.
Yes, sir, development and progress is nothing if it cannot ensure the dignity of and protect the lajja of the millions of Lajjos in India.