NEW DELHI — Count the number of public toilets for women inIndia, or the availability of something as basic as low-cost sanitary napkins, and the invisibility of women’s needs becomes apparent. But as campaigns like the “No Toilet, No Bride” effort in the northern state of Haryana make an impact, India’s women are beginning to demand basic rights.
This isn’t often easy. Just a few kilometers away from showrooms that advertise gold faucets and offer ways of turning bathrooms into glamour rooms, the women of Kusumpur, a slum area in Delhi, are lining up to use public toilets in distinctly unglamorous conditions.
Kusumpur has almost no private toilets and only one public toilet for every 500 women. As Usha Kumari, a longtime resident, says, the impact on these women’s lives is stark.
“If you have to go to school or a job, you have to be up early to line up for water from the common tap to wash, then for the toilet,” she said. “Some days I have to use the flying toilet and freshen up in the Metro bathroom.”
The “flying toilet” is a common solution in Indian slums to the lack of bathrooms. Women with no access to clean public toilets often use a plastic bag, then deposit the bag and its contents in the trash later.
In a 2009 study, the Center for Civil Society, a nonprofit organization, estimated that the capital had only 132 public toilets for women, many of them barely functioning, compared with 1,534 for men. The effect of this, in Delhi and across urban India, is to severely limit the mobility of women and their ability to work efficiently.
Marie Rodriguez, a market stall owner in Margao, in the southeastern state of Goa, described the difference toilets can make. “Once the municipality installed a toilet for women here, I could take over the shop from my son,” she said. “Before that, I could come in and help, but staying the entire day was impossible.”
For thousands of women across India, the existence of a toilet near their workplace is no small thing. It affects women’s ability to work, their safety (many rapes in slums and rural India happen in areas where women have to walk a long way to reach the toilet) and their mobility.
The impact on women’s lives, as a study by the nonprofit organization ASER shows, begins early. Its Annual Status of Education Report for 2010 confirms the link between providing separate toilets for girls in schools and girls’ dropout rates. Only 4 in 10 government schools, according to the group’s data, have functioning toilets for girls, and this strongly influences the girls’ ability to attend school. In Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh — three states with the lowest percentage of toilets for girls — the numbers for girls’ school attendance are correspondingly low.
There are signs of change, though, and one of the most surprising may be in the matrimonial market. Four years ago, the Haryana government started its “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign, painting walls across the state with the slogan: “I won’t allow my daughter to marry into a home without toilets.”
Today, as 23-year-old Nimmi Singh, who is now engaged to be married, insists, a groom with a loo is essential. Her family in the city of Rohtak rejected two bathroom-less grooms before locating a family willing to install one in time for the wedding.
“It’s a matter of pride,” she said. “Why should I have to go to the fields?”
And in Delhi, marriage brokers — who provide a popular service in a country where arranged marriages are still the norm — confirm that many families will now ask whether the groom’s family has a bathroom of its own before going ahead with nuptial negotiations.
Meanwhile, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, an inventor is hoping to usher in a separate but equally important revolution. A few years ago, A. Muruganantham made news with his campaign to create a low-cost sanitary napkin that could be used by poor women in both urban and rural India. He pursued a “Gandhian operation” to make cheap sanitary napkins: women would use his company’s technology to set up their own manufacturing units at home, much as the charkha was used to spin homespun cloth two generations ago.
He isn’t alone — Procter & Gamble has entered a partnership with the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare’s National Rural Health Mission to produce inexpensive sanitary napkins for rural women in the northwestern state of Rajasthan.
A recent survey by the nongovernmental organization Plan India indicated how great the need for innovations of this kind are here. It found that 68 percent of rural women in India could not afford something as basic as a sanitary napkin. It also found that reproductive tract infections were 70 percent more prevalent among women who lacked access to such hygienic supplies for that time of the month.
Women like Asha Bibi, 46, who lives in the village of Baharpur in Uttar Pradesh, consider commercial brands of sanitary napkins unaffordable.
“I’ve seen the ads on television,” said Ms. Bibi, who uses cloth napkins even though she finds them uncomfortable and restricting. “But two packets cost as much as my food budget for a week. They’re for rich women, not for women like me.”
That, says Mr. Muruganantham, is what he is trying to change. “I wanted to make cheap napkins affordable for women like my wife and my sister,” he said in an interview. “With the ‘small is beautiful’ model, we want to give dignity back to women.”