Women brave attacks to answer nature's call

Women brave attacks to answer nature's call

Women are vulnerable to sexual harassment and rape when they go to a field in the dark

An 18-year-old girl was killed when she went to defecate in the fields near her house in outer Delhi’s Shahbad Dairy in March.

Her throat had been slit and the body was semi-nude, indicating sexual assault, which was later confirmed in the post-mortem report. She had to risk her life as there was no toilet at her house and did what lakhs of women do despite living in the capital – go to an open field to relieve themselves in darkness before sunrise or after sunset.

According to Delhi Police, 1,813 cases of rape were reported last year compared to 1,441 cases in 2013 and 585 in 2012. Nizar Khan of Noble Tree, an NGO woking for upliftment of women, says at least 350 women and adolscent girls could have escaped rape last year had the government provided toilets to all under the Centre-sponsored Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

“Roughly 20 to 25 per cent of the incidents took place when women went out of their homes to answer nature’s call. The figures are only like the tip of an iceberg,” she says. Nizar, who has been working on issues of sanitation and women empowerment for the past six years, says most such incidents in rural areas go unreported to police.
“At our meetings on sanitation issues with rural women, the participants confided in us about their rape once, twice or thrice when they were out in the fields after sunset to relieve themselves,” she adds. 
Due to increase in such incidents, women now say they move in pairs to avoid being attacked. “We have to go out as we do not have any kind of facility. We are scared when we step out of the house and leave in pairs. But moving around in groups is also not possible at all times,” says Guddi Devi, who lives in a slum cluster near New Delhi railway station.

Her neighbour Ameena highlights that lack of toilets prove to be a bigger concern for women living in congested localities. “The situation in busy areas of the capital is different from that on the outskirts. Here we do not have open fields, so the possibility of sexual harassment and assault becomes part of our daily routine. We end up exposing ourselves and all what we can do is ignore men roaming around there,” she says. 

Concerned with such a scenario, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had laid stress on dignity of women and pitched for making provisions for building toilets in his Independence Day speech last year. However, social activist and advocate Ashok Aggarwal feels it is a national shame that even after 69 years of Independence, majority of the poor have no access to functioning and hygienic toilets.

On July 26, a 35-year-old woman was also bitten by a snake when she had to go out in the open to defecate. She was hospitalised for two days. “It is more troubling and shocking when such things happen in the capital of the country. Fundamental right to live with dignity as guaranteed under the Constitution has no meaning to such poor people,” says Aggarwal.

The Central government also acknowledges that an overwhelming percentage of women who are forced to wait till nightfall to relieve themselves face the risk of being raped. “Sexual harassment and rape are a risk for many women who, without a household toilet, have to wait until nightfall to seek the privacy of darkness outside to relive themselves,” says a note of the Central government on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

The note emphasising the need for sanitation was prepared by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. It even says that while having a toilet is important for everyone, access to safe and clean toilets bring particular benefits to women and girls. “Women and girls don’t need toilet facilities just for defecation, they also need privacy and dignity when menstruating,” the note added.

The main goal of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is to eradicate the practice of open defecation by 2019. As part of the programme, the central government gives Rs 10,000 to every family to construct a toilet.

Deputy Commissioner of Police (Outer) Vikramjit Singh told Deccan Herald the department was concerned about the increase in rape cases and is taking numerous steps to ensure the safety of women. “We are not happy with showing larger number of cases being registered. But the question is, how is the issue to be tackled? I can assure that we are taking all steps seriously and following implementation of all directions,” Singh says.

Police control room vans with women constables also conduct regular patrol and interact with women living in slum clusters to motivate them to report incidents of sexual harassment and rape. “In most such crimes, the accused is overpowered and handed over to police. It sends a strong message to other men in the locality and prevents them from repeating the offence,” Singh adds.

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