Sunday, October 12, 2014

Out in the open

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 12, 2014

Absence of sanitation facilities for women during disasters enhances their vulnerability. Photo: AP

Absence of sanitation facilities for women during disasters enhances their vulnerability. Photo: AP

The absence of sanitation facilities for women during disasters enhances their vulnerability.

Last month, while our attention was diverted by what our politicians were doing on foreign shores and at home, tragedies on a massive scale were being played out in many parts of the country.

Besides the devastating floods in Kashmir last month, vast swathes of the rest of India have also been inundated by floodwaters. Odisha, Bihar, Assam and Meghalaya have seen some of the worst flooding in years. For these states, floods are an annual phenomenon. But this year they have been worse and in places where the waters never advanced with such force in earlier years.

So even as the usual tamashas and tirades occupy our news space, spare a thought for the women, men and children in these states who are still struggling. Even as I write this column, an estimated four lakh people in Assam and Meghalaya, spread over 4,446 villages in 23 districts are homeless or badly affected by the floods. Thousands of people remain in relief camps because they cannot go back to their villages.
In Odisha last month, rising river waters submerged thousands of villages in 23 of the 30 districts in the state. In Bihar, too, the flooding has been relentless, spreading destruction, destitution and disease.

While the reports in the media on these states are few and far in-between — you have to make a determined effort to mine out the news from mainstream Indian media — the few reports that have appeared make heart-rending reading.

One report that I found particularly touching appeared in The Hindu on August 27, 2014, under the headline, ‘Women fight shame in flood hit Bihar’ ( It quoted women in Bihar’s Supaul district talking about the particular challenge that they face as women in the wake of floods.

A woman in her thirties was quoted saying, “Poor women like us face more problems to relieve ourselves when floods force us to flee our villages. It is our fate. No one can imagine this except those like us.”
Another older woman said, “We have no option but to relieve ourselves in the open by closing our eyes and minds to the hell-like situation.”

What they are talking about is the pathetic absence of any sanitation arrangement for women during such disasters. You might argue that in any case many of these women would not have toilets and are therefore used to open defecation. But can anyone imagine what this woman means when she says they close their “eyes and minds” when they go out to relieve themselves in a flooded landscape?

Why, people would legitimately ask, should we make such a fuss about women’s problems at such times when everyone — men, women and children, as well as the elderly — are affected? I do so because in many ways women’s vulnerabilities are enhanced at such times. If they confront a daily challenge of sanitation, this is compounded during floods and other disasters. Yet, when relief measures are put in place, the particular needs of women are often overlooked.

In a powerful article that Assam-based journalist Teresa Rehman wrote after the 2010 floods in her state (, she quotes a woman called Salma Begum from Sonitpur district: “Sometimes we have to seek permission from the owners of a dry patch in order to defecate. Most often we have to do it discreetly, on other people’s land, as it becomes difficult to control oneself. Sometimes, during the floods, we starve ourselves so that we do not need to defecate.”

In this instance, women like Salma were beneficiaries of the government’s Total Sanitation Programme, in particular low-cost toilets. Yet, one flood, and everything including these toilets are washed away. Women like her are then left with no alternative but to revert to the age-old practice of open defecation, with the added complication of not finding a dry spot.

Floodwaters are indiscriminating. They sweep away everything and everyone that comes in their way. But for the survivors, the story varies greatly depending on class, caste and gender. And this is where the voices of women like Salma from Assam or the women from Bihar must be heeded. The process of relief and rehabilitation must necessarily be ‘gendered. The absence of toilets is a woman’s problem in a very specific way.

Sweeping our streets clean is all very well but surely cleanliness must mean that women do not need to live through ‘a hell-like situation’ on a daily basis.

(To read the original, click here.)

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