A step towards understanding the sanitation needs of women

BY ANINDITA DAS

Photos by Anis Ul Haque

A small girl studying in a government school in Guwahati city has to go home atleast three times a day during school hours to use the toilet. When asked if there is no toilet facility in the school, she said that there are toilets but everyone is scared of the ghost in it and so children do not go near it.  Similarly, a young girl, who is a medical student, has to spend her day in anxiety during her college hours as she is unable to use the toilets in filthy condition within the campus. The girls in the slum areas are exposed to sexual violence while they go to the open for defecating during dark.

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These are the diverse narratives that came out in the Sanitation Scribes Conversation on “Understanding the Sanitation needs of women”, an initiative of Thumb Print Foundation, in association of Shishu Sarothi, supported by UNICEF, Assam. Achievement of WASH targets including elimination of open defecation and availability of safe drinking water, depends to a large extent on creating awareness and sensitization among communities for which it is critical to make WASH issues an acceptable and urgent ‘talking point’ in the public discourse. Media plays an important role in raising relevant issues, and increasing public consciousness and acceptability of certain issues. In this context, the role of Sanitation Scribes will be crucial to bring hitherto non-prioritised issues in mainstream discourse.

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The conversation moderated by Srutimala Duara, a well-known writer and Associate Professor in English, Handique Girls College. She highlighted the various problems women encounter when it comes to their sanitation needs. Veteran journalist Nurul Laskar, Dinesh Narayanan of The Economic Times, Gynecologist Dr. Dilip Sarma, media personnel Florence Rabha Handique, Disabled Rights activist Urmee Mazumdar, Managing Editor of The Thumbprint Teresa Rehman, Tahseen Alam, Communication Officer, UNICEF Assam, Child Rights activist and Founder Chairman at UTSAH Miguel Das Queah, Dr. Sanghamitra Dey, Assistant Professor of English, Arya Vidyapeeth College, theatre artist Kismat Bano, Bonya Baruah of Dainik Janambhumi along with a number of Research Scholars, young students and professionals participated in the discussion.
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Duara pointed out that when it comes to women, using toilets entail a lot of other facilities, such as water and proper hygiene, as the budding theatre artist Kismat Bano remarked “It is very difficult to travel during menstruation as sanitation needs for women is never taken care of in most of the places”. Maintenance of toilets has always been an issue, and sometimes it is found that toilets are locked for that reason, added Dr. Duara. When Florence Handique joined a corporate media house in Guwahati in the year 2004, she stated “I was surprised to find that there was only one toilet for around 200 employees, and one can imagine what could be the condition of the toilet. I had to hold myself from releasing in the dread of using the unclean toilet. During that time I had even contracted Urinary Tract Infection”.

Gynaecologist Dilip Sarma, talking about women’s health said, “As a physician I advise pregnant women to drink a lot of water, but most of the working women say that they intentionally avoid drinking much water as the toilets in their workplace cannot be used. Such a situation leads to common problems in women like UTI, as there is high chance of contracting the disease due to the use of common toilet. Women should be vocal about their problems, as facilities should be there for them for proper disposal of sanitary napkins and clean toilets with water”.

The conversations organized by Sanitation Scribes evoked responses from a diverse group of people which often led to the birth of new ideas. A young event management professional Prabal Kalita chipped in with his ideas. “Once I prepared a budget for an event in Guwahati, I included the expense of setting up mobile toilets, which I have always done in the events in other cities of India as mandatory. But the organizers here did not think it to be necessary. It’s an appeal to all the organizers of public events, including Bihu functions to ensure adequate sanitation facilities,” he said.

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Theatre artiste Kismat Bano proposed that theatre can be an effective medium to sensitize people, as street plays, puppet shows and performances can be conducted to convey sanitation message to the people. She plans to work on her next play around sanitation.

The conversation also raised the important point that sanitation needs of women is an all-pervasive issue cutting across class, caste, creed and gender. Almost everyone had faced a sanitation problem in their lives, be it a working professional, a medical student, a traffic policewoman or a domestic help. And the solution lies not in building more toilets, but raising sensitivity and awareness among all sections of society including the authorities.

Disability rights activist Urmee Majumdar stressed on the need to look into the specific sanitation needs of women with disabilities. It is often seen that their sanitation needs are swept under the carpet. Even if there are toilets for the differently-abled, they are just one without taking into consideration the needs of the different genders.

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Dinesh Narayanan, a journalist from Economic Times who hails from Kerala, said that “I am aware of such issues. I come from a place where there is complete sanitation in late 70s. People built it before they felt the need for it. But in Maharashtra, while travelling in the villages I observed that people squatting in front of the highway, as there are only two toilets in the entire village. Availability of water and sanitation is a huge issue in Maharashtra. Even after the toilets are built, people prefer to go in the open”. It thus reflect the fact that mindset of the people and water become the determining factors in using toilet.

A journalist with Dainik Janambhumi, Bonya Baruah said, “Media has a vital role to play in this regard. There should be investigative reporting on sanitation for women in the slums, rural areas and in times of disasters.” She felt that women suffer due to lack of sanitation in times of floods. Electronic media can also draw attention to these issues.

At the end, Urmee Majumdar gave away saplings of different plants to the students and guests. The saplings are a reminder of a germination of  new ideas and resolution to understand the sanitation needs of women.

The take home from this conversation was that poor sanitation is an issue that can affect everyone but women across all strata of society are often the most at risk. The provision of hygiene and sanitation are often considered women’s tasks. Women are promoters, educators and leaders of home and community-based sanitation practices. However, women’s concerns are rarely addressed, as societal barriers often restrict women’s involvement in decision-making processes regarding toilets, sanitation programs and projects.

Anindita Das

Anindita Das

Born and brought up in Assam's Guwahati city, Anindita Das did her masters from Tezpur University and M.Phil from Gauhati University in English. She had previously worked as a lecturer in a college and is at present working as the Project fellow in the Department of English, Gauhati University. She is Senior Correspondent, The Thumb Print.