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close this bookGATE - 1985/4 - Renewable Energy - Biogas (GTZ GATE, 1985, 56 p.)
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Cartoon & Reflection

Taboos Make Hygiene Difficult for Women
by Anil Agarwal

As in the energy sector, so in the field of hygiene: women are left out and men make the decisions. Whatever is available by way of water supply and sanitation, for instance, it seems that while the Installation of latrines would be given far more importance if society gave higher priority to women's needs, efforts to introduce scientific practices leading to better family hygiene could easily mean, at least within the existing social framework, more drudgery for women.

The usual official explanation for the neglect of sanitation programmes is that they require changes in deeprooted behavioural factors, which bureaucracies cannot bring about.

But is this all there is to it? Who do these behavioural factors govern most? Was there nobody within the communities benefitting from sanitation programmes interested in toilets? The sociological literature on sanitation behaviour is amazingly small, but whatever exists does show that sanitation programmes where accepted much more by women that men because of the greater need for privacy enforced upon them by society. Undertaking sanitation programmes effectively means asking male decision-makers in the family to establish systems that do not concern them in particular. They can squat whenever and wherever they wish, unlike the women. In many Middle Eastern countries, women defecate on roof tops because of the purdah system. In Bangladesh, scientists reported at a conference on diarrhoeal diseases, men ease themselves according "to their natural requirements" but women only before sunrise or after sunset. In the rural households they surveyed, they found that "when women felt the need for defecation during daytime they had to hold it with difficulty until sunset. Sometimes such women skipped lunch so that they could hold the bowel motion for a longer time. This skipping of lunch occured several times in a month, in the case of most of the women. On occasions when they failed to hold the motion, they defecated hastily in the backyard".

Delhi is no different. Take a train that comes into the city soon after sunrise. There will be thousands of men out in the field but only a rare woman. "I learnt the feminist aspect of sanitation," remarks a middle-class urban woman from Delhi, "when I went out to a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh. There were no toilet facilities in the village: the land was dry and parched for miles around; and no tree to hide behind. Like the village women, I too had no choice but to hold my urge until dusk."

The half-hearted, liberal attempts that governments and communities have made (read instead "that men have made") to introduce toilets have easily withered away in the face of social taboos. There never was any strong commitment. But it is amazing that all these irrational taboos invariably govern women's behaviour. In parts of East Africa, toilet programmes are said to have failed because a woman who has seen the excrete of a male is not supposed to get married. In South Korea, there was reportedly difficulty in introducing toilets because the daughter-in-law could not squat on the same seat as the father-in-law.

Voluntary groups working in the slums of Bombay are finding that the realities of life have made women particularly anxious to get private toilets. They defecate after sunset and have to look around for isolated spots: just the places that leave them open to rape and molestation. A young Bombay slum girl who has recently risen to become an important beautician of the city but still lives with her family in a slum, frankly told the fashionable Eve's Weekly: "Every morning I control the urge with a great effort and rush to the toilet once I reach the parlour. On holidays I use my friend's bathroom. She lives nearby in a pucca house." The slum performs its morning ablutions on seaside rocks in communal harmony.

What is the lesson of all this? Clearly that all male writers, reporters and analysts of human problems must be made fully aware of and sensitive to women's interests. And women themselves ought to get better organised and assert their technological needs. If that were to happen, many national development priorities could be changed or re-emphasized. Some women argue that it may even be the beginning of a new and more rational world.