“Building a toilet in my home won’t bring my daughter back,” Sridevi, the victim’s mother, said from her home. “It’s too late. The police and government never cared to give us security and decency so we could use the bathroom, and now my daughter is dead.”
Last week in India, two teenage girls were gang raped and hanged while searching for a secluded place to relieve themselves.
Roughly half the population of India must use the fields or other public, outdoor areas as a toilet because proper sanitation does not exist. Due to modesty restrictions, women in villages are only allowed to relieve themselves in the fields when it’s dark. Ketki Angre and Sonal Mehrotra write that “the route the young girls took that night is a familiar one for the women of the village. It is probably the only time in the day when they step out alone, unaccompanied by the men of the family, in the dark. ‘Men go out in the day, so women can go only early in the morning or late at night’…An everyday routine in rural India – where the acute shortage of basic facilities like bathrooms forces women and girls to venture out to the open fields – also makes them vulnerable to horrific sexual violence.”
For the women living in slums where a public toilet exists, the danger is still very real. The toilets are poorly maintained, increasing the likelihood of disease. One woman described maggots crawling onto her legs while in a public toilet (see below). Without proper drainage, sewage piles up and spreads into the streets. Furthermore, public toilets are typically very far from the homes so women are still forced to walk a great distance in order to use it, leaving them vulnerable to attack much like the women who must use the fields. Some will eat and drink less in order to avoid needing to leave their home to relieve themselves. Public toilets are often locked during the night, limiting women and often forcing them to use bags until the morning. For those who do have a public toilet at their disposal, they must pay fees in order to use the toilet. Many cannot afford the cost – it becomes a choice between food and water or a dirty public toilet.
Describing life in the slums, WaterAid states:
Almost a billion people worldwide live in slums. These are characterised by inadequate housing and living conditions, a lack of basic services such as toilets, and are subject to overcrowding. By their nature, slums are unplanned, and many people live in basic rented accommodation with few, if any, legal rights. In many countries, women do not have the legal right to own property, so even the few legal rights provided to slum-dwellers may be inaccessible to female-headed households. In slums, where there are high levels of poverty and a lack of law enforcement, going out at night in search of a place to go to the toilet can be risky for both men and women; however, women face the additional threat of sexual violence.
The young girls always traveled in pairs when walking to the wheat fields near their northern Indian village at night to relieve themselves before bed. That precaution wasn’t enough to prevent them from being raped and killed last week.
Women in Katra village, where the murders took place, describe the act of open defecation as one of fear and indecency, where the threat of attack and harassment is unavoidable. Three men are accused by police of abducting the girls, 12 and 14, before gang raping them, and then hanging them from a mango tree by their head scarves.
“We’re scared when we go into the fields because we have exposed ourselves and there’s no protection,” said Sridevi, the mother of one of the victims, sitting in a shady corner of her home under police protection. Her last name is being withheld under a law that grants victims anonymity. “The world doesn’t offer us the decency to let us defecate in private.”
Typically considered a private moment, relieving oneself may now become one of India’s most public issues in the aftermath of the killings. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won the largest electoral mandate in 30 years last month, vowed to build a toilet in every home in a nation where half of India’s 1.2 billion people currently defecate in the open, the highest number in the world.
Nearly half-a-billion Indians – or 48% of the population – lack access to basic sanitation and defecate in the open. The situation is worse in villages where, according to the WHO and Unicef, some 65% defecate in the open.
And women appear to bear the brunt as they are mostly attacked and assaulted when they step out early in the morning or late in the evening. Several studies have shown that women without toilets at home are vulnerable to sexual violence when travelling to and from public facilities or open fields.
The evidence is glaring.
A senior police official in Bihar said some 400 women would have “escaped” rape last year if they had toilets in their homes.
Women living in urban slums of Delhi reported specific incidents of girls under 10 “being raped while on their way to use a public toilet” to researchers of a 2011 study funded by WaterAid and DFID-funded Sanitation and Hygiene Applied Research for Equity.
Women in one slum said when they went out in the open to defecate, local boys stared at them, made threats, threw bricks and stabbed them. Others said they faced “lewd remarks, physical gestures and rape when they relieved themselves in the bushes”.
“We have had one-on-one fights with thugs in order to save our daughters from getting raped. It then becomes a fight that either you [the thug] kill me to get to my daughter or you back off,” a helpless mother told the researchers, pointing out to the chilling frequency of such assaults.
By one estimate, some 300 million women and girls in India defecate in the open. Most of them belong to underprivileged sections of the society and are too poor to afford toilets. The two girls from Badaun, who reportedly belonged to the lower-rung of a group of castes called Other Backward Classes (OBCs), were among them and paid with their lives.
“This vicious, horrifying attack illustrates too vividly the risks that girls and women take when they don’t have a safe, private place to relieve themselves,” says said Barbara Frost, chief executive of WaterAid. “Ending open defecation is an urgent priority that needs to be addressed, for the benefit of women and girls who live in poverty and without access to privacy and a decent toilet.”
Experts believe that India needs to scale up its war on sanitation with a special emphases on women.
It needs to build more private toilets with sewerage connections when space is available and shared toilets when space is scarce. Community toilets have worked in many places and flopped in others like the city of Bhopal, where, a study revealed, only half as many women as men used the toilets because of their distance from home.
This is not a problem in India alone: violence against women on the way to or from public toilets have been reported from countries like Kenya and Uganda. But for a country which aspires for superpower status, lack of toilets is an enduring shame.
…the lack of toilets is costing women their lives. Today, 2.5 billion people live without access to a toilet, forcing women to walk to dark and dangerous places to find the privacy they need – those same dark and dangerous places where men wait to attack them.
So we must stop blushing when we talk about open defecation because it is not something to be embarrassed about: it is something to be angry about.
Those two cousins, just 14 and 16 years old, had left their homes in the Indian village of Katra, in Uttar Pradesh, because they had no toilet at home. They were never to return, found hanging from a tree after being brutally attacked.
A report in the Times of India in February this year quoted the police in another district of Uttar Pradesh as saying that 95% of cases of rape and molestation took place when women and girls had left their homes to “answer a call of nature”. But this is certainly not just an Indian problem. One in three people around the world lack access to basic sanitation, while 1 billion of those – that is, 15% of the global population – currently practise open defecation.
A WaterAid study in the slums of Lagos in Nigeria showed that a quarter of women who lacked access to sanitation had first- or second-hand experience of harassment, threats of violence or actual assault linked to their lack of a safe, private toilet in the last year. Amnesty International has released similar studies from Kenya and the Solomon Islands.
Being forced to defecate by rivers, in fields or in alleyways not only puts women and girls at greater risk of sexual violence and harassment; it is also a major public health risk.
The abhorrent gang rape and murder of these two young girls illustrates the importance of basic necessities in preserving life and combating violence. Their story highlights, too, the caste prejudice and gender inequality the people of India face.
Amana Fontanella-Khan writes:
When a distressed father is reporting his daughter’s disappearance to a policeman in India, there are some questions he doesn’t want to hear. “What is your caste?” is one of them. Yet, the father, Sohan Lal, said this was the first thing the police asked him last Tuesday, when he begged them for help. After revealing his low-caste background as a Shakya, Mr. Lal said the officers mocked him and refused to lift a finger.
Hours later, Mr. Lal’s daughter, 12, and a female cousin, 14, were found hanging by their scarves from a mango tree in Katra Saadatganj, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. They had been raped. His daughter had last been seen with a group of brothers from the Yadav caste, which is the dominant caste in the village.
Our understanding of their deaths will be incomplete until we recognize the role of the caste system in India’s rape crisis.
For much of India’s history the lower castes, especially the Dalits (once known as untouchables), have been routinely raped by the landowning upper castes. Better legal protections, urbanization and social mobility have helped reduce caste-based discrimination, but not enough. Dalit women are still the most likely to be victims of gang rapes. An analysis of Uttar Pradesh’s crime statistics for 2007 by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties showed that 90 percent of rape victims in 2007 were Dalit women.
Since December 2012, when a 23-year-old woman from the Kurmi caste, another low caste, died after being gang-raped and attacked with an iron rod by five men in a moving bus, India has been undergoing a process of soul-searching. Yet the caste system has not been mentioned enough in the debate. While attacks against Western tourists and women in urban centers have attracted a great deal of attention, rapes of lower-caste women routinely fail to provoke an outcry. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, has yet to condemn the rape and murder in Katra Saadatganj.
It is no surprise that the caste system, and the unequal society it produces, leads to moral blind spots that hide rapes from public view. Caste historically determined where you lived, what you did, whom you married, even what you ate. In many villages, those rules are still in place, decades after caste discrimination was banned.
Much of the caste-based sexual violence emerges out of a feudal sense of entitlement among some upper-caste men. “You have not really experienced the land until you have experienced the Dalit women” is a popular saying among the landowning Jats, a politically powerful group that, despite being relatively low caste themselves, are above the Dalits.
Though upper-caste men are rarely imprisoned for raping Dalits, they have a widely accepted defense at their disposal, should they ever need one: They would never touch a lower-caste woman for fear of being “polluted.” In one famous 1995 case, a Dalit woman’s allegations of gang rape were dismissed by a judge who claimed that “an upper-caste man could not have defiled himself by raping a lower-caste woman.”
Many organizations work toward bringing clean water and sanitation to countries where, like India, the general population is often forced to urinate and defecate in public, on public lands. World Toilet answers the sanitation crisis of countries like India by addressing four major issues. Why invest in toilets? Because nearly 2,000 children will die today from preventable diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation. Because “the 2015 goal to halve the proportion of people living without sanitation is running 150 years behind schedule.” Because having their basic sanitary needs met [including menstrual hygiene] will enable girls to stay in school, increasing their chances to escape poverty and change their communities for the better. And because it is more cost effective to have toilets than not: World Toilet reports that “every $1 spent on water and sanitation generates returns of $8 in saved time, increased productivity and reduced health costs.”
The stories of harassment and abuse suffered by women and children as they seek to service one of the most basic of human needs add one more reason to the list: sanitation has the potential to save lives, not just from disease and poverty, but from violence.
Because everyone deserves the opportunity to take care of their physical needs in safety and dignity.
Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros wrote about the inseparability of violence and poverty in their book The Locust Effect:
Beneath the surface of the world’s poorest communities, common violence — including rape, forced labor, illegal detention, land theft, police abuse and other brutality — has become routine and relentless. And like a horde of locusts devouring everything in their path, the unchecked plague of violence ruins lives, blocks the road out of poverty, and undercuts development.
How has this plague of violence grown so ferocious? The answer is terrifying and startlingly simple: There’s nothing shielding the poor from violent people. In one of the most remarkable — and unremarked upon — social disasters of the last half century, basic public justice systems in the developing world have descended into a state of utter collapse (from “About the Book”).
To stamp out global violence, we must be actively working toward a world without poverty. To stamp out poverty, we must be actively combating violence. *
It will never be enough to be outraged by stories of violence. People must be actively pursuing change.
There are millions of women and children at risk of harassment and assault because they lack sanitation facilities; 9 out of 10 women have been harassed and 1/3 of those interviewed have been assaulted while relieving themselves (from WaterAid).
The health risks are tremendous when entire communities lack proper sanitation.
To find out more about how you can aid organizations in providing proper sanitation facilities, see Water for the Ages’ H2O Organizations, a list of 80 organizations dedicated to providing clean water and sanitation to people living in poverty.
“A woman would not feel safe walking to the toilet. Men rape women there at night.”
“We have had one-on-one fights with thugs in order to save our daughters from getting raped. It then becomes a fight that either you kill me to get to my daughter or you back off.”
“During the night we are in constant fear.”
“It’s a secret and shameful for others to know that you are having your period.”
“Many men who do such things are not caught… We don’t have any support from law-makers, from the police, from the public, from our husbands and family members… Even the people who we voted for never visit this place.”
“We are all using the same toilet and it gets filled up very fast. Everyone finds it disgusting because it is dirty and many people use it.”
“The toilets are almost full. Maggots come out and crawl up your feet.”
“The sewage comes up to my door. We feel so disgusted that we cannot even eat food. We cannot leave our homes.”
– quotations from interviews conducted by WaterAid, “Nowhere to Go”
*Note: this is not to say that violence only occurs in poor communities or to poorer people. Violence can affect anyone regardless of nationality, gender, age, economic standing, or religion.