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June 12, 2014 Meena Menon
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Giving everyone access to toilets and piping them with water is easier than removing the patriarchal bias against women reinforced by criminal remarks such as "boys will be boys".

Then Badaun, now Bahraich. What's happening in UP? Image: Special arrangement
Then Badaun, now Bahraich. What's happening in UP? Image: Special arrangement
The latest sport in the Utterly Backward state also called Uttar Pradesh seems to be stringing women up trees after criminally assaulting them and strangling them. First it was the two girls in Badaun and the ghastly trend seems to be picking up steam. Immediately after this incident articles appeared all over pointing to the lack of toilets for women, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about said one such story- referring to the fact that women have to wait for the night to relieve themselves in so many parts of the country.

Few wrote to dispel this myth – one of them being journalist Neha Dixit who pointed out the painful fact which was ignored by the proponents for more toilets, that it was the way women were perceived in Uttar Pradesh (and most definitely elsewhere in the country too), as objects waiting to be grabbed and violated. She herself was not spared while covering a political rally, from obscene taunts by young men.

Travelling many years ago in the state during a trek to Gangotri, with a group of my friends, many of them men, we were accosted by the police who stopped our jeep and demanded to see our identity cards. Most of us were wearing shorts and T-shirts but the policemen didn’t have a problem with my male friends who were so attired. Instead of checking our identity cards, they checked out the two women and remarked that we were provocatively dressed and travelling with a bunch of men to boot. So what exactly were we up to, they asked while leering at us. The fact that I was working for a newspaper and had an I-card to prove it didn’t help and it was a while before they let us go with more taunts and insinuations. Yes, there were practically no toilets during that long ride in the hills and we had to wait to get to a hotel of sorts for some privacy.

We know it is not only a total lack of sanitation that affects women in many ways, but more crucially the way they are perceived, to say nothing about the lack of choices they have. We keep admiring and sympathising with overworked rural Indian women who wake up before dawn so they can finish their ablutions and start cooking, fetch water, cut firewood and then take the cattle out for grazing. They run the family, clean the house and work on the field. They bear children often with poor healthcare facilities and are undernourished and anemic. They are also not allowed to study much and are married off, sometimes at an early age or even as children. Protests against child marriage in Rajasthan resulted in the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, who had to wage a long legal battle for justice.

It is well established that rape is used as a tool for revenge and to teach women a lesson and put them in their place, among other things. And as if that was not enough, they are being hung on trees and displayed in what is meant to be a terrorising and bone-chilling public warning of sorts.

Only building more toilets, though absolutely necessary, is not going to resolve these issues that many Indian women have to struggle with, even after Independence. The situation of women is worsened by their caste affiliations and those who have challenged the caste barriers have met with a grim fate. While the Delhi gang rape attracted huge attention, even internationally, with outraged people spilling out on the streets, so many incidents of rape on Dalit women at that time went practically unnoticed and un- protested for the most part.

Which is not to deny that sanitation is an issue that has been severely under-prioritised for decades and despite international focus on it, very little has been done to change things. There are reports that rural people do not want to use toilets and in villages in Maharashtra I had visited some years ago for stories on this issue, there was resistance. But that was linked more to the fact that the toilets did not have any provision for water in most places. Proper sanitation cannot exist without adequate water facilities and in a country where clean drinking water is a luxury, there is a need to integrate water supply and sanitation on a more efficient level. Enough studies have been done to show how much time women spend fetching water and most women travel a minimum one or three km to fetch water for their daily needs. In this scenario, it is difficult for them to throw this water down the drain literally.

The women welcomed the idea of building of toilets in most places but the question they asked was where do we get the water from for washing and cleaning. Piped water remains a dream for most and the subsidies on building toilets were wasted as the toilets built were used as storage places, for lack of water. As people have asked before, what is preventing a country which has advanced nuclear technology and has ambitions about sending a spacecraft to Mars to ensure clean water supply and sanitation for its people? While this is not impossible, what is a stony challenge is removing the patriarchal bias in society against women and their objectification as toys for boys. Remarks by ruling politicians from the state have not helped matters and this nauseous contention that “boys will be boys” needs to be severely dealt with as a criminal utterance.

While punishing those guilty of rape and murder promptly and not after decades, could go a long way in establishing some rule of law, the perception about women in the house, women at work, on the streets and everywhere has changed little. No law can create this change and like charity it has to begin at home, arguably with toilets.

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