Sanitation : The Hidden Gender Problem

Munni sits holding a plate laden with three large rotis topped with a generous helping of spicy dal (lentils). She is hungry, but will not eat it yet. Covering the food with another plate, she quietly puts it away, while her husband and two teenage sons quickly polish off what is on their plates. "Yes, I am hungry. I have not eaten since morning, but if I eat now I will have to go to the toilet by the time the food is digested � and there is always a long line at the washroom. We have just two toilets for women in this camp. So I eat only one meal a day, to minimize the number of visits to the toilet," she says.

Munni and her family are getting used to living in makeshift transit accommodation, on the outskirts of Bangalore, after their house got burnt down along with those of 57 other families in the neighborhood. While both men and women among the displaced families face the trauma of uprooting, loss of belongings and lack of amenities, the women suffer an additional dimension of cruel handicaps that do not apply to the men � that of attending to nature's calls and bodily functions.

The lack of sanitation facilities compounds the trauma of displacement and loss. For instance, in Gujarat, a fact finding team found that there were only 22 toilets for 10,000 persons in one of the relief camps set up for those who had to flee from their homes following the recent communal clashes. This gross insufficiency means that both men and women have to queue up, but while the men can (and often do) stop to empty their bladders by the roadside, the women cannot.

As some of the women affected by the limited access to toilet facilities confess, the only solution available is to ensure that their need to use a toilet is reduced as far as possible. Some of them say that this means they hesitate to drink water even when they are thirsty. This in turn means that their health suffers, because denying the body sufficient fluid intake can result in kidney problems and other illnesses, some of them serious. These health hazards are in addition to those that both men and women, as displaced persons in relief camps, face in terms of unsatisfactory living conditions.

In a program on the problems faced by persons forced to survive in makeshift shelters, telecast recently by the BBC, one indigent woman of Mumbai spoke about how she eats only once a day due to the absence of toilet facilities. "The men can manage somehow and relieve themselves whenever they want, they can walk around and locate some place behind a bush, but we women can't do that," she remarked. Since coming to live in that shanty town, she has developed anaemia due to reduced food intake.

Predictably, many women of that colony share this deficiency for the same reason. Poor health in turn reduces their work productivity, and also makes them vulnerable to frequent infections and debilitating illnesses. No male, living in similar dwellings in the same colony, seemed to suffer from this kind of handicap � of being forced to restrict the frequency of food intake because of the lack of toilet facilities.

Given the existent cultural constraints on women, women do not relieve themselves in public the way men do. Educated and well-dressed men will get out of a car and urinate by the roadside without feeling abashed � a state of mind few women, rich or poor, young or old can reach. Women tend to hold on, control and force their bodies into punishing (and often harmful) restraints because that is what socio-cultural norms decree.

The latest Human Development Report estimates that only 31 per cent of the population in India has adequate sanitation facilities, as against 73 per cent in Vietnam, and 68 per cent in Zimbabwe, for instance. Among the displaced and uprooted, however, this percentage becomes even lower, because a temporary shelter is rarely seen as more than a room with a roof.

Dr Almas Ali, a medical practitioner working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Andhra Pradesh, estimates that gynecological and urinary tract problems run higher (almost one-third) among women who lack access to sanitation facilities. The absence of facilities is not merely because of poverty but also because of the cultural inhibitions and constraints regarding women's bodily functions.

According to statistics compiled by the UN, women and children make up 80 per cent of the world's refugees and displaced people. If anything, their need for facilities is thus greater than that of men. And yet, no more than scant attention is paid to this need, even by aid agencies and NGOs that organize supplies of food, milk, blankets and medicines.

During the Kosovo war two years ago, for instance, a refugee woman in a transit camp pointed out that few relief organizations thought of bringing supplies of sanitary napkins for the women, which are "as essential as food for the daily meal", as she put it. She said she waited till women volunteers turned up to mention her need. Echoing this point of view, the women of one family affected by the earthquake in Gujarat last year said, "We can speak boldly about the lack of sheets and pillows and blankets, but somehow find it difficult to bring ourselves to mention toilets. That is a subject we are not supposed to mention, it's not done. It is considered improper, unbecoming. Sharam aathi hai (we feel ashamed)."

"Sharam" (shame) is what being a woman is all about, even if it means attending to perfectly natural and normal functions. And that continues to be so, even today, in spite of all the advances that the female half of the population has chalked up in various fields.    


More by :  Sakuntala Narsimhan

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