This blog is written by a journalist based in Mumbai who writes about cities, the environment, developmental issues, the media, women and many other subjects.The title 'ulti khopdi' is a Hindi phrase referring to someone who likes to look at things from the other side.
Getting them to stay in school: A mobile toilet at a government school in Chennai. Photo: A. Muralitharan
Absence of sanitation facilities, in our villages and in our schools, is a matter of national shame.
Shame, said the Prime Minister, that 42 per cent of Indian children are malnourished. Shame, said the Supreme Court, that despite the Right to Education, thousands of children, and particularly girls, are dropping out of school because there are no toilets. Shame, said Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Rural Development, calling the absence of sanitation “the biggest blot on the human development portfolio in India.”
Yes, the lack of sanitation, the fact that one of out every two Indians is forced to defecate in the open, is a very good reason why we as a nation should be ashamed. Ramesh acknowledges that out of six lakh villages in India, hardly 25,000 are free from open defecation.
Why does this story not change? India has made considerable progress in supplying water, although there are still vast areas where people have no access to potable water, where women have to walk miles to fetch a few litres of water. In one of the more evocative descriptions in a recent book, Rising by Ashoke Chatterjee, on the work of a remarkable women's organisation in Gujarat called Utthan, we read about little girls tied to ropes being lowered into a deep well with a little bit of muddy water at the bottom. Despite the risk, their mothers wait till the child has managed to collect a small bowl of that water before she is pulled up.
But the absence of sanitation is even more widespread. It is a burden that women especially must carry. There is no place for them, literally, to answer “the call of nature”, as polite company prefers to refer to something that should be called by its real name — defecation and urination. Has sanitation been routinely neglected because it affects women more than men? If you read the handful of success stories of sanitation schemes, they are usually those where women have been involved.
But here I want to address specifically the absence of sanitary facilities in schools. What is the point of giving our children the Right to Education, if something as basic as toilets are not available in most schools? How can we expect women's literacy rate to improve if young girls feel embarrassed to be in school after puberty because there are no toilets?
There are budgets for building toilets. The Government of India has launched a Total Sanitation Campaign with the ambitious aim of achieving “Total Sanitation”, whatever that means, by this year, 2012. Yet, either the funds available are not spent on building toilets, or if toilets are built, they become unusable within a short time because there is no water, or they get vandalised. I can recall visiting a shining new school building in a village in Bihar where children were attending school and were given the mid-day meal. But the brand new toilets built with government money had already been vandalised. The doors to the cubicles were stolen, the toilet pans were shattered and all the taps had disappeared. Children had to run to their homes if they wanted to take a toilet break. Not surprisingly, adolescent girls would simply drop out, or not attend school for several days each month.
Forced to act
The Supreme Court has been forced to intervene on the issue. It is amazing how many times the most basic aspects of development and governance get traction only because the apex court demands action. The court has given all states up to February 28 to build temporary toilets in all schools and permanent ones by March 31. And it has rightly refused to entertain any excuses. So far, only four states — Bihar, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Arunachal Pradesh — have managed to meet 90 per cent of the target. Maharashtra, one of the richer states in this country, is shockingly lax with thousands of schools where there are no toilets for girls and some with no toilets at all.
Equally worrying is the fact that sanitation standards are not satisfactory even in the better-off schools where lack of funds cannot be an excuse. A survey of 304 Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) schools revealed that 265 of them were below par in sanitation standards. In fact, only four schools got the ‘green' certification that represents excellent standards and another 35 came in the good and fair category. If such surveys were conducted in all schools in our cities, it is more than likely that the figures would be similar.
The toilet story is the real story of India. We constantly glorify our achievements, such as a good economic growth rate, but feel no sense of shame that our children are dying from lack of food and that our girls and women have to face the daily indignity of life without toilets.
What an amazing New Year gift for Indian women! A police chief and a Minister telling them that if they get harassed, molested or raped, it is actually their fault. We have heard this before on many occasions. But coming as it does just as the New Year dawns, it is a bit of a downer for all those who thought that perhaps our society would finally accept that women are equal citizens and that if they continue to be sexually assaulted, there is a sickness in our society that must be tackled. Not quite yet, it would seem.
According to media reports, the Director General of Police of Andhra Pradesh was quoted as saying words to the effect that if women wore flimsy clothes, they provoked rape. These remarks were recorded on camera and telecast. And have been played out on the Internet on multiple sites. Hence, it is strange that police officers defending the DGP should suggest that the remarks have been taken out of context. They were made in response to a question about the incidence of rape in Andhra Pradesh.
Meanwhile, a Karnataka Minister responsible for women's welfare, when asked what he thought of the Andhra DGP's views, was reported saying that while women were free to dress as they pleased, he was personally against them wearing ‘provocative' clothing and that they needed to be ‘dignified'. And to add further grist to the mill, the head of a panel dealing with sexual harassment in Bangalore University believes that only sarees with long sleeved blouses ensure that women are respected and that she is against women wearing ‘obscene' clothes.
The more things change
So, ‘provocative', ‘obscene' clothes equal an invitation to rape. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Despite decades of campaigns for women's rights, against sexual violence, for stronger laws, the deeply ingrained view that women had it coming to them has not changed. In fact, in my own experience of writing this column, whenever I write about violence against women, rape, or sexual harassment in the public space, as I did in my last column, there are more than a few letters suggesting to me that I have got it all wrong and that it is because women dress the way they do that all this is happening. The majority of these letters are written by men.
Here, for instance, is a quote from one such letter (unedited) in response to my last column (The Other Half, December 25, 2011): “You have written well but one vital point no want mentions whenever there is a case of sexual harassment: the point is the female, are they not seducing males by wearing sleeve-less tops and tight jeans. Sexual desire is hidden in all of us, and it needs a basis for arousal. The girls can bear to wear some decent clothes. When you need protection you have to pay some costs, why not pay by wearing decent clothes. You people should launch a campaign to aware the girls. I think if there is no such movements the situation will get worse in later years.”
Public memory is notoriously short on most issues and people like the young man who has written, presuming he is young, are probably unaware of the long struggle waged by the women's movement in India against rape. He and others like him have probably never heard of Mathura, a 16-year-old tribal girl who was raped by two policemen in the Desai Ganj police station in Maharashtra's Chandrapur district in 1974. Mathura had gone to the police to register a complaint about her missing husband. Even as her relatives waited outside for her, she was assaulted and raped by the two men. Did this attack have anything to do with what she wore? Did she invite the rape? It was a question of power. The police had the power; Mathura did not.
Unfortunately, the courts let off the two policemen on the grounds that there were no injuries on Mathura to establish that she had resisted. Hence the court gave the benefit of the doubt to the policemen. It was this judgment that triggered a campaign to change the rape laws so that the victim was not victimised further. It also established rules about police conduct; women cannot be summoned to a police station after dark and when they are, women constables have to be present. In 1983, the provision in the criminal law dealing with rape was amended so that the victim did not have to prove that she was raped; her statement was sufficient. The onus of proving innocence was on the rapist. These changes were made in recognition of the fact that the criminal justice system was skewed against women who turned to the law when they were sexually assaulted.
Or take a more recent case, that of the rape and murder of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama in Manipur in 2004, allegedly by the security forces. Did it matter what Manorama wore? Her rape and death triggered the iconic naked protest by a dozen elderly Manipuri women in Imphal, who stood before the headquarters of the Assam Rifles on July 15, 2004, with a banner stating “Indian Army Rape Us”. The “Imas” or mothers as they are called, have continued to protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and are the main support group behind that determined and brave woman, Irom Sharmila, whose indefinite fast against AFSPA will soon enter its 12 th year.
It's not the dress
So, how is women's attire relevant when the subject is rape and sexual assault? When little girls are raped, can they be charged with being provocative? When old women are raped, can they be accused of wearing ‘obscene' clothes? When a woman is simply going about her daily routine, and she is sexually assaulted, can we turn around and tell her that she should be ‘dignified'? There is no dignity in being the target of violence for no other reason than that you are a woman — old, young, thin, fat, dark, fair, any caste, creed or class. To reduce the heinousness of this crime to such triviality, by bringing up women's attire, is a crime in itself. And for law enforcers and lawmakers to do so, is even worse.