NEW DELHI—India’s sanitation crisis is leaving women vulnerable to abuse.
Nearly half of India’s 1.2 billion people have no toilet in their homes, and must relieve themselves in the open. With rapid urbanization and the reduction of trees, bushes, and private open spaces, women in many regions are increasingly likely to wait until dark to get privacy.
This has made them more vulnerable to assault.
The country was recently shaken by the rape and murder of two teenage girls who had gone to relieve themselves in the open one evening in late May in a village in Uttar Pradesh state.
“Because of lack of toilets, (women) go outside for defecation and they fall prey to the unsocial elements or the bad elements. And also Indian laws are not very hard. And if they are hard, they are not implemented fast. It takes 10–20 years for a trial and this also is causing some problems,” said Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder of NGO Sulabh International.
Sulabh International has installed 1.2 million individual toilets and 8,000 public toilets across India.
Fight for Toilets
While cases of rape and abuse are reported frequently in Indian media, there are fewer stories women’s struggle to build toilets.
New Delhi Television reported the case of a woman, Parwati Devi in Bihar state, who fought for four years with her in-laws to get a toilet at home. It put her marriage on the rocks, but she finally got one installed, thanks to help from Sulabh International.
Imarti Devi (no relation to Parwati), from the village of Hirmithila in Haryana state, faced a similar problem. She got a toilet installed in her home three years ago, and also labored to build toilets in 104 other homes in her village.
“I made a toilet after facing lots of trouble. Forests get filled with water (when it rains). If we go on the road, people pelt stone at us, some do other things,” she said.
There was a case of attempted abuse in Imarti Devi’s village when a girl had gone out in the open to defecate. Fortunately, she was able to alert other villagers and they rescued her.
“Such attempts happen. Sometimes boys are there and do catch girls, particularly if a girl goes alone. They try to do bad things,” said Devi.
According to Sulabh International founder Dr. Pathak, this vulnerability can be overcome by building toilets.
“India can provide toilet in each and every house and that can prevent this type of rapes (happening) because of no toilets,” he said.
He says the Indian government has the money and resources to fix the problem, but it’s a question of priority.
“They are so slow in their implementation of the schemes. If a scheme started today, it’ll take 10 years, 20 years—that’s the problem!” Pathak said.
India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi famously spoke of “toilets before temples” during his recent campaign. But whether this will become more than just a campaign promise remains to be seen.