In Focus 23rd November, 2016
Open defecation and its effect on adolescent girls.

There are questions which refuse to go out of my mind. I think about them and then I forget.  However what keeps taking me back to the questions, is my work, a part of which is focused on making violence against girls and women unacceptable.

“Lote mein jitna pani lekar gayi thi kya who kafi tha?” (Was the water in the vessel you took enough for you?)

“Raste mein kuch hua to nahi?” (Nothing happened enroute, right?)

Many of our young girls and women face this difficult situation day after day.

The issue of open defecation has to be looked at keeping different aspects in mind. These aspects range from availability of sanitation facility, hygiene, availability of water, funding to government policies and programmes such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan etc. However what bothers me the most is the aspect of safety and the role parents play in ensuring a safe space for their children.

Are young girls and women safe while going for nature’s call?

Several researches show that girls face sexual harassment while going for defecation.

No country in the world, has more open defecation than India. 60% of the world’s open defecation happens in our country. The situation is  worse in the rural areas where, over 65% defecate in the open according to WHO (World Health Organisation). Women face the brunt as they are  sexually assaulted when they step out of their homes early in the morning to relieve themselves. According to UNICEF, 50% of the rape cases happen when women defecate in the open.

Women have to restrict themselves until it is dark to protect their privacy and ‘dignity’ so that the men from the family, village and surrounding areas don’t see them going to field. But ironically, this makes them more vulnerable to threats of sexual harassment.     

The second question I grapple with is whether these girls and women have enough water to clean themselves, especially when they are menstruating?

I can only imagine how tough it must be for adolescents when they hit menarche. Cleaning themselves with just bottle of water  must be difficult, unmanageable and  unhygienic.

Out of concern and curiosity when I asked this question to young girls they responded saying that it is difficult but they have learnt to manage. When I probed a little more, some girls were blank faced while some girls shared that they do not like it but they do not have any say. Some also responded saying that they had never thought of it as this has always been the practice.

The problem is deep rooted. Intergenerational dialogue is limited and conversations between parents and children/ young adolescent are so mechanical and need based that these kind of questions and concerns get no space to be addressed. Secondly, talk around body, sexuality is  accompanied with stigma which results in parents fearing that if they talk about these things they will lose respect. In some cases parents  don’t even have the confidence and skill to talk about these issues with their  children.

This results in girls hiding incidents of sexual harassment as they fear that sharing about sexual harassment would lead to them dropping out of school and restricted mobility. It’s high time we address open defecation as an issue which demands prompt attention. The potential hygiene calamity makes women prone to infections and ailments and is also a risk to their safety.

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