Prime minister Narendra Modi rolled out the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan from Rajghat, New Delhi, on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi (October 2) in 2014. The movement pledged to make India ‘open defecation free’ by October 2, 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of the father of the nation.
Women have always played a major role in bringing about any revolution, especially a social revolution, throughout the world. In the context of open defecation it cannot be denied that it is a consequential socio-demographic issue that has exerted a far-reaching impact on the physical, social and emotional health of women. This only necessitates the presence of women in the forefront to tackle this colossal task.
Apart from exposing women to several health problems, predominantly contagious diseases, open defecation raises the risk of harassment for women. It is common knowledge that women having no access to household toilets are more likely to face sexual harassment and violence.
The fear of predators stalking and victimising them while they go out to relieve themselves creates a fear psychosis, which impacts their cognitive development. This has created extreme humiliation and a loss of dignity for several women, preventing them from living a normal and healthy life.
Lack of hygienic toilet facilities has forced several girls in the rural areas to leave their education midway. It has been observed that girls who attain adolescence prefer not to attend classes for prolonged periods during their menstruation cycle. A lack of proper sanitation framework has undermined the academic progress of women and severely impeded the attainment of higher female literacy rates. Inadequate public sanitation facilities also have a detrimental impact on the reproductive health of women.
Traditional gender stereotypes and a rigid patriarchal system acting as a deterrent for women to attain their true social and economic potential need to be discarded. Creation of a sustainable sanitation infrastructure for women should be expedited on a high priority basis. Building toilets for women is the first step in setting them on the path towards empowerment and dignity.
The stakeholders in the campaign are realising that access to clean sanitation for women is critical to attaining the loftier tenets of the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan. If sanitation is taken as a key indicator of the human development index in a developing economy, women need to be elevated to the higher strata of the pyramid.
It is encouraging to see that women, especially in rural areas, are proving to be key change agents in ensuring the on-ground success of the Swacch Bharat campaign. They are forming pressure groups, mortgaging their jewellery and engaging in fund-collection drives to build toilets and hygienic sanitation facilities in an around their villages.
Though a positive beginning has been made, to ensure the sustained success of the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, women need to be positioned in the centre-stage of the campaign. In the long run, community behavioural changes need to be initiated for encouraging healthy sanitary habits. Public sensibilities concerning women need to undergo a fundamental change with emphasis on improved access to clean toilets.
The Swacch Bharat Abhiyan is a mass cleanliness movement that has the potential to drastically change the sanitation ecosystem of the country. If this social revolution is to succeed, it is imperative for women to lead from the front. Success of the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan rests highly on the leadership role played by women in this country so as to bring about improvement in their socio-economic status and living conditions and a clean and healthy India in the near future.
(The writer is professor at the Vivekanand Education Society)