Women’s empowerment through sanitation in rural India

24 November 2020

One of the biggest sanitation challenges India is facing is to provide women with the access to decent and safe toilets especially in rural areas. None of us want to think about a woman who has ‘controlled’ herself until it is dark, or who wakes up before dawn, who then must gather a group of other women and make a long, difficult trek to a desolate spot to ‘answer nature’s call.’

In order to move towards gender equality, it is essential to end open defecation (OD); against this backdrop the nationwide sanitation programme Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) initiated in 2014, assumes greater relevance. The SBM initiative is not just about improving the cleanliness of surroundings but also seeking people’s participation in providing their own sanitation facilities and systems for efficient waste management. SBM is split into two parts: SBM-Urban and SBM-Rural (known as SBM-Gramin or SBM-G). The components, implementation mechanism, funding and private party participation differ across the SBM-Urban and SBM-Rural, as the reasons for and challenges posed by OD vary.

One of the objectives of SBM-G is creating a significant positive impact on gender and promoting social inclusion by improving sanitation, especially in marginalised communities. According to the NITI Ayog 2020 report, SBM has successfully achieved the target of making India open-defecation-free (ODF) by constructing over 109 million household and community toilets in 603,175 villages in 706 districts across the country.

What are rural women’s experiences of SBM-G?

However, as village after village, district after district apparently becomes ODF, let’s grasp what it means for millions of women living in rural areas of the country with the help of research findings and a few case studies.

The report ‘Access to toilets, and the safety, convenience and self-respect of women in rural India’, published in 2020 shows that SMB-G has helped provide access to household toilets for 6,993 women across 5 states of India (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh). This has led to improved convenience, security and self-respect for women, helping them gain a more dignified life.

However, access alone is not enough:

  • WASH facilities need to be designed to meet the privacy and dignity requirements of all users. The first phase of SBM (2014-19) focussed on construction of toilets, but toilets alone do not address women’s needs. In this study in rural Odisha many women with toilets perceived marginal benefit over OD; as they lacked direct access to water for post defecation, cleaning and flushing; absence of roofs or doors for shelter and privacy.
  • Sanitation facilities also need to be appropriate for all user requirements. A study in India has found that women consider toilets only to be used for defection, they feel it is unsuitable to manage menstruation. In India, women’s urination experiences and related health hazards are understudied, possibly because urination has not been linked with many other infectious diseases. It has been found that lack of privacy or resources for menstruation and urination activities are prominent concerns. Although it may be costly to build facilities that are conducive to all of women’s needs, continuing to invest in under-used facilities is an expensive endeavour, as well.

Case study: 105-year-old Kunwar Bai from Chhattisgarh, for 100 years of her life, she relieved herself in the open. She had never heard of a toilet. There was no stopping her once she learned about the SBM-G and realised the significance of a toilet. First, she sold her goats to construct a toilet in her house. Not satisfied with that, she campaigned on until her entire village was declared ODF.

The impact is huge, however the question lies whether the villagers decided for themselves to be part of the drive to construct the toilets (as it incurred financial drawbacks such as selling assets) or whether they felt forced into it.

Case study: A male dominated Panchayat in Haryana decided on a ‘No Toilet No Bride’ policy. Women from their village would not be married into households that had no toilets. Such initiatives are welcoming as it gives more women access to private toilets but at the same time can reinforce patriarchal ideas, which might also provide sanction to men to continue defecating in the open. Therefore, promotions like these ought to be more gender inclusive from the outset.

More on this can be read on this issue in this guide ‘Engaging Men and Boys in Sanitation and Hygiene Programming’ and this blog ‘Nine Ideas for Gender Transformative WASH’.

Moving forward in India

Access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene are the most fundamental building blocks in the move towards ODF status and empowering women.

Improved sanitation is key to lifting the status, wellbeing and opportunities of women if we work on the following:

1. Women to be part of decision-making

Currently, toilet ownership enables a choice, not a solution. For toilets to become part of the solution, women need to be involved in decision-making and governance of the WASH activities.

Research from coastal Odisha on determinants of toilet ownership in rural households, found a tendency for the final decision to rest with the male head of the household especially with regard to decide for toilet acquisition. Whereas, women were responsible for toilet maintenance, keeping the system functioning, fetching water for toilet flushing, etc.

There is evidence that empowering women to make sanitation decisions could enhance performance outcomes for the household and community as a whole. Women must participate and engage in household and community decisions during the process of determining the sanitation solutions for issues such as:

  • The technology to be used for toilet construction
  • Safety considerations regarding the location of the toilet
  • Maintenance responsibilities of toilet facilities
  • Menstrual hygiene management requirements
  • Elderly women’s needs
  • Pregnant women’s needs

There are some positive examples of women being involved in decision-making processes in India: A drinking water supply and sanitation project in Rajasthan encouraged women to decide on the location of the household toilet. In the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) implemented villages in Odisha, adolescent girls’ committees were formed in each village with the purpose to promote usage among households, post toilet construction.

2. Strengthen self-help groups (SHGs) in the sanitation sector

SHGs are a financial intermediate committee of 10-20 members mainly comprising of women with the same socio-economic background. They are present in South Asia and South East Asian countries, engage with formal financial institutions to help unbanked households access financial services. SHGs usually work towards empowering women, developing leadership abilities among the poor, increasing school enrolments and improving nutrition and the use of birth control. Working through SHGs makes mobilization and communication easier, as they hold regular weekly meetings where trained female community mobilizers deliver a uniform set of messages repeatedly across the community.

3. Gender inclusive sanitation

It is important to note, that unless men are involved in facilitating opportunities for women’s decision-making in WASH processes, a WASH programme may inadvertently run the risk of raising the burdens for women. Facilitating men’s partnership to support women in WASH processes is an emerging area. In addition, media promotions should not solely focus on women’s dignity only. Messages should be for both genders and avoid reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes.

4. Behavioural and mindset change

It is essential to ensure that sanitation is viewed as more than a facility, but an array of behaviours and needs that can be overlooked by sanitation programmes. In addition, sanitation programmes should draw attention to the sanitation constraints that women face due to the patriarchal mind-set. Women are expected to set their sanitation needs aside for household obligations (such as maintaining cleanliness and hygiene at home, health of family) and the needs of other family members (especially sick and elderly). However, we need to be mindful that the status of women can be changed slowly and gradually as it has deep cultural roots.

It is high time to consider women as the architects of solutions, as well as the beneficiaries, to build stronger and a better, longer lasting response to the sanitation problems. We must believe that promoting women’s active citizenship and voice in community decision making has a lot of potential to improve sanitation programming, women’s right and gender equality.

Written by Dr Mahreen Matto, Program Manager, National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), India