With our constant (but justified) complaints in the Western world about public bathrooms and the horrors that accompany them, we often take for granted the fact that we are provided with places that we can relieve ourselves in, for the most part, sanitary conditions. Unfortunately, many parts of India cannot afford this luxury, leading to open defecation: a not only unsanitary practice, but also a practice which greatly disadvantages girls. For this reason, many girls are unable to focus in school or are forced to drop out altogether, making India’s toilet issue both an issue of health and an issue of women’s rights.
Despite the fact that the World Health Organization recently promoted India from being a poor country to a middle income country, about 70 percent of households still do not have a toilet in their home. Along with this, about 60 percent of India still engages in open defecation which, apart from the major health risks this raises, impacts women the most, especially in public schools.
As many schools in India’s rural areas lack toilets, students have to defecate in the open. Although this is not as much of a problem for boys, as public urination and defecation is fairly commonplace in India from men, girls are often followed by their male classmates when trying to relieve themselves and as a result are often sexually harassed and assaulted. Due to the toxic Indian tendency of victim-blaming in these instances, many girls are forced to drop out of school due to not only the fear of sexual assault, but the fear of bringing “shame” to their family’s honor.
Along with this threat, the lack of sufficient bathrooms in Indian schools poses many health risks to young girls that also contribute to the female dropout rate. For instance, as many girls want to avoid relieving themselves at school, girls often refrain from drinking water at school and as a result suffer from dehydration throughout the day and have to be sent home from school early. Additionally, the pain and discomfort girls experience from waiting to use the bathroom also results in having to leave school, negatively impacting their ability to learn at the same level as their male counterparts.
Menstruation only adds to this problem. Every month, girls in India have to undergo the struggle of attending school without having a proper place to change and dispose of their sanitary napkin. Also, as feminine sanitation products are not readily available in India, many girls from poor families do not enjoy this luxury and have to miss school in order to avoid bleeding at school. The lack of accommodation the school system provides for menstruating girls greatly fuels the dropout rate for girls in the Indian school system.
Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi has lived up to his promises of tackling this issue by building one million toilets, these facilities are often left unused as many of them are not connected to clean water and sewage systems. Additionally, despite this action, there has been no widespread effort to rid India of its culture of public defecation, which is the main issue.
Though sanitation is not usually associated with the issue of education, it plays a major role in a student’s ability to learn, and even more so for female students. Girls cannot continue to lose their education simply for being girls.