Before coming to intern in India, I had not heard very much about the issues and implications of open defecation in many parts of the world. Conversations about global issues of inequality and social justice, usually are centred around other basic human needs such as food, water and shelter and so on. Yet, the more that I’m learning about open defecation and its related issues the more I have realised what a crucial issue it is for the health, safety, and dignity of huge numbers of people around the world—particularly in India.
Although it’s important to also look beyond just the story numbers can tell, here are some quick facts about open defecation in this context:
– About 564 million people, just under half the population in India openly defecate
- – In rural India 61% of the population practices open defecation
- – India accounts for about 59% of the 1.1 billion people worldwide who practice open defecation
There are a variety of issues open defecation is linked to. Open defecation causes numerous sanitation and health problems such as diarrhoeal diseases and stunting to name a couple. In India, almost 400 children per day die from diarrhea linked to poor sanitation. In India almost 38% of children are stunted, which affects not only children’s physical development but also cognitive and often impacts their educational outcomes.Open defecation goes even further beyond the issue It is also very much so an issue of social justice, particularly from a gender perspective. For women and girls, safety is a major issue when having to go out to find space to openly defecate—often far away from their homes. Fears about safety and sexual harassment are rampant. In order to have more privacy, many prefer to go for open defecation when it is dark; yet this also makes it more unsafe for women and girls. Often women and girls describe practicing ways to try and minimize the number of times they must go for open defecation, yet this often results in dehydration from not drinking water or urinary tract infections to name a couple. Women and girls also need proper sanitation facilities that can also provide safety and hygiene during menstruation. Since menstruation is a topic that many are not comfortable talking about, often menstrual hygiene is left out of the conversation around toilets and health.
In India, there has been and currently are huge efforts by the government, NGOs, and community members themselves in order to tackle the issue of open defecation as well as overall sanitation in the country—sometimes with success, sometimes with not as much success. Right now, some are criticizing the current government’s “Clean India” campaign for lack of progress, yet it has brought a lot of resources as well as attention to the issue of sanitation and open defecation in particular.
In the development project I am currently working on, one of the indicators (of twenty) we are working with is “open defecation free” in every single Gram Panchayat (rural area). What has stuck with me is the lesson that something that can seem at first glance like an infrastructure problem, such as there being a lack of facilities to use, is in fact extremely complex and goes far beyond simple questions of infrastructure or financial resources.
Rather, to address open defecation means also addressing the interconnected issues as well. For instance, dealing with the issue of open defecation also means looking at economic situations, local social dynamics, access to water, sustainability, accountability, and much more. Other complexities for instance involve deeply embedded cultural beliefs and practices. For some older people, toilets may be strange and uncomfortable to use. There are also some cultural beliefs that may understand toilets as not being healthy or safe for certain people.
During the fieldwork I’ve been involved with through PRIA, we’ve interacted with numerous community members who identify open defecation and lack of toilets as major problems in their rural communities. Many of the individuals we meet with are frustrated by the lack of toilet facilities and tired of the health and social impacts of open defecation.
Addressing the issue of open defecation is not an easy task both globally and in India. To address the issue of open defecation through a framework that will ensure looking at the gendered aspects of open defecation and sanitation is even more of a challenge—yet is an essential part of looking at any issue and solution in order for all to experience positive change.
Through my internship here the more I learn, the more I have come to realise that access to sanitary facilities is something that every individual deserves to have. Globally, I think we need to continue to ask more questions and find more solutions as to how we can address open defecation in a sustainable way that will benefit the health and safety of millions.