In a sharp critique of the Government of India thinking, continuing since the UPA days, that rural women are “vulnerable to sexual assault” when they defecate in the open, a recent study carried has said that such a view only distracts policy makers “from the real social divisions, based on caste, that prevent the adoption of affordable latrines”.
Carried out jointly by scholars from Indian Statistical Institute, University of Pennsylvania and Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE), and published by RICE, the study believes such a thinking only caters to the urbanite view that “if women had more decision-making power, many more households in rural India would invest in latrines.”
Based on an interview of 1,046 women, as part of the paper “Understanding open defecation in rural India: Untouchability, pollution, and latrine pits” by Diane Coffey, Aashish Gupta, Payal Hathi, Dean Spears, Nikhil Srivastav, and Sangita Vyas, the study says, “4.3% told us that while going to defecate, they had been the victim of someone attempting to molest them.”
However, ironically, the study says, “Of the same group, 7.6% reported that this had happened to them while going to the market”, underlining, “The point is not that these events are necessarily comparable. The point is that it is not a serious policy response”.
The study is based on a survey on sanitation beliefs and behavior for approximately 23,000 individuals in 3,200 households in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Wondering by this standard should one “suggest that women should stop going to markets”, the study insists, “Ending sexual violence, ending open defecation, and ensuring social access to markets for everyone are all important goals, but they will not be resolved by the same public policy or programme.”
The study says, “Although it is true that latrines may benefit women more than men because they are expected to clean up the feces of ailing relatives and small children, women reject affordable latrines for the same reasons that men do: they, too, are concerned about ritual pollution and pit-emptying.”
The study further says, “It is no surprise, considering the restrictions on rural women’s freedom of movement, that many women express positive attitudes toward open defecation. A young daughter-in-law in Haryana, whose household owns a latrine, explained that 'the reason that [I and my sisters-in-law] go outside [to defecate] is that we get to wander a bit...you know, we live cooped up inside'.”
During the field work, the scholars say, they found government slogans, painted on walls or displayed on posters in government offices, which pointed to the apparent contradiction between practices that enforce women’s modesty and open defecation. “For instance, a common slogan in Uttar Pradesh is 'Daughters-in-law and daughters should not go outside, make a toilet in your house'."
Finding these efforts “to persuade men to build latrines by appealing to restrictive gender norms problematic”, the study underlines, “These gender norms are stifling for women and constitute an important constraint on human development in rural India. Discrimination against women and limitations on their mobility and decision making power are widely understood to contribute to poor child health.”
Asking government “dismantle, not reinforce, such norms”, the study says, “these messages give villagers the impression that latrine use is for women, but the message that the government should be sending is that latrine use is for everyone. Men’s feces as well as women’s feces spread germs that make other people sick. ”