The struggles for women’s empowerment and improving sanitation are both harmed by using patriarchal messages to encourage construction of toilets.

A patriarchal toilet promotion message in a village in Uttar Pradesh

“Successful” sanitation promotion in Rajasthan has been receiving much attention lately, especially in media stories (see here and here, for instance). There is certainly much to learn from recent initiatives in some districts of Rajasthan to promote the use of toilets in villages: a lot of attention and importance was accorded to the issue by district collectors in these districts; the focus was on behaviour change activities rather than toilet construction; latrine pits were made of cheap cement rings, rather than expensive brick; and attempts were made to teach villagers how latrine pits work.

The chief reason why open defecation is so rampant in India is that rural Indians do not want pit latrines, which are a safe sanitation solution and which are used around the world. This is because of anxieties related to emptying pits once they fill up. These anxieties are driven by notions of purity and pollution, rooted in India’s centuries-old caste system. Emptying a pit in which faeces have decomposed is safe, but most rural Indians would not touch such a pit, because they consider it impure. The government promotes these pit latrines without explaining how the pits work, and rural Indians think that these latrines are “impure, “fake”, “temporary”, or for “emergency use” only – they don’t want these “small” pits to fill up.

In Rajasthan, since the water table is very low, people can build deeper pits without worrying about contaminating water sources with faecal germs, while the use of cement rings allows these larger pits to be constructed relatively cheaply. These deep pits cannot be constructed in states like Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, because the water table is not that low there. Still, the fact that in Rajasthan, district sanitation campaigns tried to address villagers’ anxieties about latrine pits shows that they identified the problem correctly.

Despite this, a disturbing aspect of Rajasthan’s toilet promotion activities has been the use of patriarchal messages to promote the construction of toilets. These messages are likely to derail the sanitation campaigns in the state, while also reinforcing the patriarchal social norms widely prevalent in the state.

Impact of patriarchal messages

In our empirical research on sanitation and health in rural India, we have become used to seeing patriarchal messages to promote the construction of toilets. Slogans like “Bahu betiyan bahar na jayein, Ghar mein hi shauchalay banvayein” [“Daughters and Daughters-in-law shouldn’t go outside, build a toilet inside your house”] are now painted across walls and toilets in rural India. Through these slogans, men are encouraged to build a toilet not because it will prevent the spread of disease and germs, but because their patriarchal values should not allow women to go outside the house.

Further, the idea of ghoonghat, or keeping women covered, is used in behaviour change messages in rural Rajasthan. In large banners and in yearly calendars, in government offices and on village walls, the Rajasthan government uses a picture of a woman carrying a lota filled with water. In the poster, the woman is being asked by her daughter, “Maa, ghar mein ghoonghat tera saathi, fir kyun shuach khule mein jaati” [“Mother, when you cover your head inside the house, how come you go in the open to defecate”]. The poster and the slogan use patriarchal logic to point out the inconsistency between practicing ghoonghat and defecating in the open.

CAN YOU ANSWER HER? Daughter asks, “Mother, when you cover your head inside the house, how come you go in the open to defecate?". Examples of Rajasthan sanitation messaging.

In the process, this message associates the use of toilets with women, endorses the practice of ghoonghat, and encourages the idea that the right place for a women are the char-diwari of the ghar (four walls of the house).

Patriarchy in India has pernicious impacts on the health and well-being of women in rural India: work-force participation rates are among the lowest in the world and falling over time, while men do hardly any house-work in India. Patriarchy is the prime reason why women marry early in India, and have higher fertility than poorer countriessuch as Bangladesh and Nepal. Patriarchal division of food within the household means that women do not gain much weight during pregnancy. Women in India face discrimination at birth, in education, and in nutrition. Their seclusion to the household means that they cannot access healthcare when they want to: 73% women told respondents of the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) 2004-05 that they need permission to go to a health centre.

If it is in the interest of all Indians to promote the empowerment of women and chip away at patriarchy, the government should not use slogans that reinforce patriarchal ideas and provide state sanction to the practices of women’s seclusion in a patriarchal society.

These slogans may also harm the use of toilets. They make people associate the use of a toilet with women, especially in the minds of rural men. The government should instead be convincing men to use latrines as well. After all, in households that own a toilet, men are more likely to defecate in the open than women.

Rajasthan particularly patriarchal

According to Census 2011, Rajasthan is the state in India with the lowest literacy rates among women. Almost half, or 47.3% of the women in Rajasthan were found to be illiterate in Rajasthan. This is much above the national female illiteracy rate, of 34.5%. Similarly, among all states, the practice of ghoonghat was the highest in Rajasthan (see map). According to the results of the 2004-5 India Human Development Survey, 94% of the women in Rajasthan said that they practice ghoonghat or purdah. In rural Rajasthan, this figure reaches 98% of the women.

Source- IHDS 2004-05

At 55%, the all-India proportion of women who practice ghoonghat is much lesser than that of Rajasthan, though states of North India are similar to Rajasthan – in Madhya Pradesh for instance, 93% women practiced ghoonghat. In societies like these, state sanction to the practice of ghoonghat through sanitation messages is a regressive step. Following Rajasthan, the use of ghoonghat to promote sanitation had made its way into television screens across India. An advertisement by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, featuring Vidya Balan, promotes the construction and use of a toilet in a conservative family. ‘Phir to ghoonghat khol hi do“, Balan tells a bride’s family at a wedding when she learns they don’t have a toilet:

This idea that toilets are important for the dignity of women and should be built to make sure that women don’t face sexual harassment has also gained currency rapidly. Even Prime Minister Modi invoked these patriarchal messages at his first Independence Day speech: “Brother and Sisters, we are living in 21st century. Has it ever pained us that our mothers and sisters have to defecate in open? …. Can’t we just make arrangements for toilets for the dignity of our mothers and sisters?”

In the Sanitation Quality, Use, Access and Trends (SQUAT) survey 2013-14, 4.3% of the women said that they had been harassed while going to defecate in the open. That is not a small number at all, but an even larger number – 7.6% – said that they had been harassed while going to the market. If we are promoting toilets as a solution to sexual violence faced by women going to defecate in the open, perhaps we should also start promoting Amazon and Flipkart as solutions to sexual violence in rural markets!

There is a further problem with the idea that toilets will solve the problem of violence against women. Data collected by the government’s National Family Health Survey (2005-06) reveal that most sexual violence occurs within the home, not outside it: 93% of the women who faced sexual violence in India said that it was committed by their husbands or former husbands, while only 0.9% of the sexual violence was by strangers (Table 15.5). Criminalising marital rape will create far greater protections against sexual violence than building toilets. Even for stranger violence, our response should be to create a society where women can move freely without fear, and not look for ways to eliminate the need for women to go outside the confines of the house. Toilets are needed not because they will prevent rape, but because their use will prevent the spread of germs and disease.

Better latrine use messages

Rajasthan’s campaigns to reduce open defecation may have much to teach to other Indian states. But it is time for a new approach to latrine use messaging that focuses on changing the behaviour of men. The ­­state of Rajasthan can learn something from a sanitation message we found on a village wall in rural UP. The message reads: “Shriman khatron ke khiladi, jao shauchalay, chhodo jhaadi” [“Dear Mister Fearless Adventurer, Use a toilet, leave the bush”].

A sanitation message in rural UP which encourages men to use a toilet.

Nikhil Srivastav and Aashish Gupta are researchers with the research institute for compassionate economics (r.i.c.e.)