NEW DELHI, INDIA – Each dawn brings the same battle for Sangeeta Devi. The simple act of defecation takes tactful planning for the 30-year-old. For Devi, a local community worker, it’s a matter of life or death.
Devi, like the other women of her slum, lacks a toilet in her home. So she wakes up early when it’s still dark, walks toward the bushes on the edge of the slum and squats there to relieve herself.
The daily humiliation is taking a toll on her dignity, she says. But open defecation is more than embarrassing. Often, men hide in the areas women commonly use to go to the bathroom, knowing that this is a position and time when they are vulnerable.
“Once, a few men put a blanket over me and tried to kidnap me,” Devi says. “I shouted at the top of my voice, and somehow, I managed to escape. But everyone is not lucky like me.”
Devi doesn’t live in poverty-stricken rural India, but right in the heart of the national capital, New Delhi. Her slum, Kirbi Place, is home to migrant laborers from poor northern states. Representative of urban poverty, it lacks sanitation and other basic amenities like scores of other unregistered New Delhi slums.
Inadequate sanitation forces women in both rural and urban areas of India to defecate in the open, leaving them vulnerable to sexual violence. Lack of toilets or maintenance of them also creates health hazards. It forces girls to drop out of school and women to quit their jobs. Some women have improved sanitation in their communities by advocating for change. The government proposes a public-private system in response to citizen demands for the prioritization of sanitation, especially in the city’s slums.
Jairam Ramesh, minister of drinking water and sanitation, recently presented to Parliament that 60 percent of India's population and 70 percent of women don’t have access to a toilet. In July 2012, he deemed India the world's capital of open defecation, according to local media. He also checked excitement about successful missile tests by lamenting that there is no use launching missiles if there are no toilets for women.
The capital is not exempt from the toilet troubles. New Delhi has only 132 public toilets for women, while men have 1,534, according to a 2009 report by the Centre for Civil Society, a nongovernmental research and educational organization devoted to improving citizens’ quality of life.
Suman Chahar, an expert in environmental sanitation and public health, has been working closely with communities in New Delhi, including Devi’s, for the past 17 years.
“This is a very grave and daily issue, particularly for these women,” Chahar says of open defecation. “It concerns their security, health and dignity. Along with shocking incidents of rape and molestation and lewd remarks, I have heard shocking stories of what all these women go through if accidentally they found a man from their community ‘sitting’ next to them in the row.”
The “row” is the line women form outside in the morning and evening to relieve themselves.
Maya Rajasthani, 36, a resident of Rajiv Gandhi Camp, a former refugee camp that is now a slum in New Delhi, describes how the people there lived without a toilet for nearly 25 years.
“While cases of molestation were common, things got ugly when a few girls were raped on their way to the vacant park near the slum, where they had gone to defecate,” the mother of three says.
Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, a nongovernmental organization working to make cost-effective toilets available to rural communities, is a pioneer in India's sanitation movement and has been working in the field for the last four decades.
Pathak says that women in rural India often have to wait until dusk or dawn to sneak out to the fields to relieve themselves, risking molestation as well as bites from scorpions and snakes.
In addition to safety risks, the lack of toilets creates health hazards, Chahar says.
“These women look sick and anemic,” she observes of women in urban slum dwellings.
In slums where there are toilets, other health risks abound for residents because of lack of maintenance.
“During rains, the dirty water [from toilets] enters their huts, and life is miserable for them,” Chahar says. “We have to understand that the risk of infection is more in women. Also, waterborne diseases like diarrhea and stomachache are common.”
Toilet access also affects education for girls.
Chahar says that while there are no toilets in schools in rural areas, there is no upkeep of the toilet complexes in schools in urban areas. Teachers complain that children spoil or dirty the property, she says, so they keep bathrooms locked instead of allowing students constant access to it.
"It's shocking that teachers often lock the toilets," she says.
The lack of access to toilets causes girls ages 12 to 18 to miss around five days of school per month, or around 50 school days per year, according to the 2011 Annual Status of Education Report released by India’s minister of human resource development. Almost 23 percent of girls drop out of school once they start menstruating.
The lack of toilets also affects educated and working women who live in the city’s center.
Joyoti Chopra, a resident of New Delhi, says she was appalled that the building housing the office of the nongovernmental organization where she worked had no proper toilet facilities for women. So she quit her job to advocate for sanitation facilities for women.
Even where there are community toilet complexes with men’s and women’s facilities, people don’t heed the signs.
“How can you have a man casually use lady's toilets in the posh city?” she asks. “It's alarming.”
Open defecation is not only a problem because of the lack of toilets, Chopra says. It’s also a behavioral problem. The reason that India has more mobile phones than toilets, she says, is because hygiene and sanitation don’t receive the same attention as new technology.
Like Chopra, other women are also taking a stand.
Rajasthani organized marches and regular visits to local politicians for two years until she secured funding for toilets for her area in 2007. Newlywed Priyanka Kumari made news in April 2012 for leaving her marital house in Kushinagar, a district in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh state, within days of her wedding because there was no toilet.
“Like my mother-in-law and other women of the area, I was supposed to go out in the fields, which I found very humiliating,” she says. “I gave my husband an ultimatum to get the toilet constructed.”
Sulabh International Social Service Organisation awarded her and two other brides from Uttar Pradesh who took similar action with 200,000 rupees ($3,700) as well as built toilets in their homes. It also gave 2.5 million rupees ($46,000) to Kumari’s community to improve sanitation.
But the lack of toilets or maintenance of existing facilities will be a problem until sanitation becomes a priority in India, Pathak says. In an urban context, the problem lies in unregistered slums erected on government property. The government, instead of waiting to recognize them, should construct a satisfactory number of toilet complexes.
“This is an issue that affects everyone, regardless of class,” Pathak says. “Whatever we have in Delhi is not adequate to meet the demand of the population. We should at least have 50,000 well-maintained toilets.”
Yogender Maan, spokesman of Municipal Corporation of Delhi, a governmental body that handles New Delhi’s civic amenities, agrees that the capital needs more toilet complexes in general, and in its slum areas in particular.
“Various surveys have been carried out by various agencies to point out the need for better sanitation facilities in the city,” Maan says. “We are aiming at creating a public-private system where government will construct the toilet complexes and various market associations and residents will come forward for their upkeep. The problems, however, is complex for slum areas.”