Killings in India suggest access to toilets isn't enough

A young woman stands outside a toilet in Badsu Village in India, where the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a sanitation project. Access to toilets remains low throughout the country. Photo by: Prashant Panjiar / Gates Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

The rape and murder of two teenage girls last week in India’s Uttar Pradesh region has reignited a debate about the availability — and usage — of toilets in the country.

The two teenagers were reportedly looking for a place to relieve themselves when they disappeared. They were found dead on Wednesday, May 28.

On Tuesday, WaterAid released part of a survey that suggests this was not the first attack on girls trying to relieve themselves. The NGO explores how a lack of bathroom facilities affects rural Dalit women across four states.

Access to toilet facilities remains low throughout the country, but even where facilities exist, they are often not used.

Of the 9,644 Dalit households the organization surveyed, 37.5 percent said they felt at risk of being bitten by snakes and insects, nearly 27 percent said they had been humiliated and insulted, 25.3 percent suggested they are at risk of getting into accidents while defecating on the railway tracks or by the road side, and 6.3 percent revealed they were sexually harassed or threatened of assault when trying to relieve themselves in the open.

Close to 40 percent of women reported contracting stomach-related diseases such as diarrhea.

Last week’s killings prompted an international outcry, although it remains to be seen how much foreign donors and investors will push for change. The issue is expected to be discussed at next week's Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London.

An estimated 600 million Indians relieve themselves in the open. Rates are higher in rural areas (65 percent) than in urban areas (12.3 percent).

"Defecation in the open has been a norm for so long,” Aditi Mittal, one of India's standup comedy pioneers and women's rights advocates, told Devex recently. “People don't want to poop in this small and closed hole. So there's a need to bridge the gap between their point of view and of providers."

The incident in India happened a day before the launch last Thursday of a new U.N. initiative aimed at ending open defecation worldwide.

What can be done to end open defecation even where bathroom facilities exist? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.

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