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Women must be centre-stage in water and sanitation – analysis

In May 2014, India was shaken by the rapes of two adolescent girls in rural northwest India, when they were out in the evening to defecate in an open field. In a recent study in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies on Women’s Experiences of Defecating in the Open, one respondent said: Some men would hide and watch us defecating and then talk about it. This often put my husband to shame and even led to quarrels, with my husband scolding me for not remaining hidden.

Fortunately, sanitation continues to be central to the government’s agenda. With the Covid-19 pandemic, it is recognised that by addressing sanitation and water issues, we improve hygiene, health, gender, and livelihoods. The Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 (SBM) aims, among other things, to find solutions for sustained behaviour change, addressing women and their personal hygiene needs.

There is a growing consensus now that whereas the statutory framework relating to sanitation is gender neutral in its approach, the policy framework does recognise gender-related issues. However, when it comes to implementation, it is evident that sanitation-related needs and vulnerabilities of women need to be better addressed. Examples such as women not being consulted in decisions taken on sanitation-related matters such as the building and use of toilets and failing to take into account the prevalent socio-cultural norms, which for generations have defined the status of women as one that needs to be protected from all forms of exposure, while, at the same time, forcing them to defecate in the open even if this is in groups, substantiate this contention.

Nor should communication only focus on women, as if men could do whatever they liked; 100% open defecation free, cannot be achieved without men also being engaged.

The famous promotional videos of SBM casting its celebrity ambassador, Vidya Balan portrayed a scene, where the protagonist asked a man on his wedding day whether he had a toilet at home, to which the answer was negative. This prompted the person to ask the bride to remove her veil explicitly giving a message that a man who lets his wife defecate in the open has no right to let his wife observe purdah. In other words, the man has to build a toilet to be able to enforce the purdah system. Later, the video was amended to “clean” the message — all communication needs to be re-checked through a gender lens.

Several research studies have indicated that girls drop out of schools due to inadequate sanitary facilities being provided especially during their menstruation periods. Facilities need to be provided — and their awkwardness needs to be addressed too.

Much work has been done to alter some of these norms and beliefs, with women clearly coming to the forefront to take charge of addressing their own needs, supported by various government schemes and non-governmental organisations.

In Odisha, women and transgender Self-Help Groups (SHGs) have been engaged in the operation and maintenance of treatment facilities in eight cities; in Jharkhand, trained women masons built over 15 lakh toilets in one year, and the state was declared open defecation free (rural) much ahead of the national cut-off date of October 2, 2019.

These examples are rapidly increasing throughout the country, with women being able to push through reforms that better their overall wellbeing either through the help of support groups or through community-led efforts. Water management, sanitary complexes that answer their needs, and a host of other requirements to help them in their daily lives are now being driven by them.

The livelihood creation opportunities are immense whether from building the infrastructure, maintaining and operating the facilities or the communication programmes in communities — and women can play a part in all of these .

The India Sanitation Coalition is committed to looking at these reforms through a gender lens to ensure unintended biases do not creep in. Policies on water and sanitation need to keep the needs of women centre-stage — indeed enable them to be agents of change.

Naina Lal Kidwai is chair, India Sanitation Coalition and FICCI Water Mission

The views expressed are personal

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