Safe Toilets – Lack of toilets puts India’s health and rural women’s safety at risk
In the village where two girls were gang-raped and hanged earlier this year, toilets may help protect women and health
In the evening gloom of their dirt courtyard, Raj Beti and her six daughters are growing desperate. They last answered nature’s call 13 hours ago, but it’s not yet dark enough to venture into the fields.
For generations, most of the 750 families in Katra, in Uttar Pradesh, northern India, have lived without toilets. They’ve grown used to holding their bladders and bowels, being stalked by wild boars and hyenas and, during the rainy season, watching out for snakes.
But since 27 May, when two girls, 14 and 15, were found gang raped and hanged after they went to relieve themselves in the dark, Katra’s residents have been gripped by a new fear.
“There are no crops now, nowhere to hide, and men can see us from all sides,” explains Raj Beti, as a teenage daughter stirs a potato curry over a wood fire, while her youngest, Soumya, two, plays hide and seek in a tattered Teletubbies dress. “We don’t know who’s watching, who’s waiting for us.”
Since the murders, the dead girls’ families have a police escort when they use the fields, but millions of other Indian villagers and slum dwellers do not have that luxury.
India leads the world in open defecation. At least 636 million Indians lack toilets, according to the latest census data, a crisis that contributes to disease, childhood malnutrition, loss of economic output and, as highlighted recently, violence against women.
The issue is so critical that it featured prominently in Narendra Modi’s first Independence Day speech, in which the prime minister said India should ensure there were toilets for all within four years. “We are in the 21st century and yet there is still no dignity for women as they have to go out in the open to defecate and they have to wait for darkness to fall,” Modi said. “Can you imagine the number of problems they have to face because of this?”
India’s government has allocated nearly £1bn over five years to build toilets, but a tour of Katra shows the money has made little difference.
In Maya Devi’s home, the bowl of the government-built latrine is cracked and the cubicle’s door has blown off. But poor aesthetics are not the main problem. “The pit is full,” said Maya Devi. “We don’t know how to empty it so we’ve started using the fields again.”
However, help is on the way. Spurred by private donors worldwide reacting to the murders, the charity Sulabh International, which builds pay-as-you-go lavatories in India’s urban slums, has pledged to provide more than 400 toilets in Katra. Ramesh Mishra, a civil engineer, has been posted in the village for the past month, overseeing construction of the first 108 composting toilets in the poorest homes. Each one is designed to be used with minimal water, to be easily cleanable with stone floors and tiled walls, and to last for decades without any special maintenance.
Mishra has become Katra’s most popular man and is trailed wherever he goes. “I have six daughters,” Raj Beti harangues him. “You’re building toilets for others, why not me?”
“It’s unfortunate that it took a terrible crime to change attitudes,” Mishra said, explaining that some villagers will have to wait for the next phase of construction. “But at least now they all want toilets.”
Across the rest of India, promoting toilet use is still a struggle. A surveyreleased in June showed that 40% of households with a working latrine still had at least one person who regularly defecates in the open and that half of them said they did so because it was pleasurable, comfortable and convenient.
“Among women, toilets figure in the top three needs for their own security and health,” said Hari Menon, deputy director of India programmes for the Gates Foundation. “It’s a much bigger problem with the men. They see their responsibility as just building a toilet, not using it.”
Experts say India’s emphasis must shift to educating people on the need for better sanitation.
“In India, a large, hierarchical bureaucracy is attempting to do a job that a good advertising agency could do,” said Yamini Aiyar, from the Accountability Initiative of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
She points to simple educational tools that could be employed.
“There are tiny strips available to test bacterial contamination of water. You dip it and it will go from being totally clean to completely black, which powerfully illustrates to people that there is really something wrong with their water if they don’t practise sanitation,” Aiyar said.
India could also learn valuable lessons from poorer neighbours such as Bangladesh, which has cut rates of open defecation from 19% to 3% in just two years by decentralising sanitation programmes.
The UN’s eight millennium development goals include halving the proportion of people who do not have access to sanitation facilities by 2015. But India’s high open defecation rates have slowed down progress.
There are few organisations like Sulabh with the expertise necessary to build low-cost, environmentally sound and user-friendly toilets. To spread sanitation, Sulabh’s founder, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, said he needed an army of “toilet missionaries”.
“If we trained 30,000 young people in building good toilets, in health, in basic sanitation at the village level, if every politician and industrialist pledged to pay for one toilet, then there could be progress,” said Pathak. “We need freedom from dirt and filth, but everyone will have to participate.”
In Raj Beti’s courtyard, the evening light fades, leaving her face in shadow. She balances Soumya on one hip and she and her older daughters head single-file towards the fields.
To the chirrup of bullfrogs and crickets and the occasional cry of a peacock, they march past the last dwelling in the village to a fallow field.
Shrouded in darkness, the girls spread out, pulling down their baggy shalwars. They’re frightened, uncomfortable and trying to hurry up as a tractor shudders past about 20 metres away, driven by men.
As they wash and walk back to the village, other girls and women appear in pairs and small groups from the gloom.
Outside his home, now guarded by six constables, Sohan Lal, the father of the 15-year-old girl who was raped and killed, said that for him, improved sanitation was as important as obtaining justice for his murdered daughter. “We don’t want to see this happening to another family,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to tolerate it.”