Indian culture and the hygiene of women

Few days ago, I happened to watch a Bollywood movie with a bizarre name. It carried the name, “Toilet Ek Prem Katha”. Seems peculiar right? That peculiarity is the reason that made me watch it. But nevertheless, the storyline carried a theme which the Republic of India needed much. This movie is woven around a middle aged man named Keshav, played by Akshay Kumar, who tries hard to win back his wife, Jaya  played by Bhumi Pednekar, who has returned to her parent’s house as her husband’s premises didn’t possess a lavatory. What on earth! Isn’t it?  But this is nor minor issue. This matter is discussed in the film as a grave problem which not only is relevant to Keshav’s abode, but also a problem within the whole village. At the commencement of the movie, it showcases rural women travelling to a place known as “the field” (an area with bushes here and there), carrying small urns filled with water early in the dawn. This is portrayed as an important part of their daily routine, where they have to fulfill their biological needs before sunlight, as men could see them instead.  In fact, the field is located far away from their homes. This very situation depicted in this movie, inspired me to find about this matter which India is well known for, which can be interpreted as “the open defecation” issue and specifically, how badly it can affect the health and the security of the rural Indian women because it is claimed that Indians own cell phones than a lavatory at their homes. And in fact, only one third of the population of about 1.2 billion Indians, got access to toilets, which is pathetic and towards.

The onset of this practice

The term “Open Defecation” or OD simply refers to “the act of relieving oneself in the open grounds, which also means the inappropriate disposal of excreta in an unhygienic manner”. This grotesque practice has been descended from many years back since Indians’ freedom fights, where they say that Indians used to defecate on the either sides of the roads to persuade the British to leave their country due to its unhygienic conditions.

Unfortunately, this practice; actually this “malpractice” still has not left the rural villages India except main cities like New Delhi. From ancient times, the villagers in these areas have been accustomed to perform their defecations outside their houses. Villagers claim that it’s their most valued culture that they are trying to protect by doing so, where they are reluctant to build toilets in their houses. They believe that constructing a lavatory in their dwellings, strongly pollutes the whereabouts and it’s against their religious practices. That same belief was well displayed through the movie, where Keshav had to do a hard struggle to build a toilet for his wife at their house, amidst the strong objections from his family as they were heavy believers of the above cultural norm.

How can this OD affect women?

First of all it needs to be mentioned that almost all women in these rural Indian villages are uneducated and illiterate. That is the main reason why they are subjected to such uncomfortable practices regarding their bodily needs and also the patriarchal society too is responsible for this, in which they live  under the authority of  their father until they get married and then under their husbands after they get married. As males in the families do not have a higher concern about their privacy, they tend to look into women’s matters in the same way. This makes rural women helpless in every way.

OD practices can be really dangerous when it comes to women as,

  • There are several cases where girls had been gang raped at the fields where they had gone to relieve their needs.
  • The risk of attacks from poisonous serpents.
  • Women are forced to hold their needs until it is dark because of their privacy, where they should not be seen performing the action at daytime. This would bring about several health problems.
  • Also the pregnant women, disabled ones and women with periods are faced with great difficulties at outdoors.
  • The risk of spreading several infections through bacteria.

Therefore, it is clear that it is the women who suffer most, because of this concept.

Moving towards a change

It is clear that a complete and a solid transformation of these age old and mundane practices is thoroughly needed. Keeping that in mind, the Indian government according to their state policy which states “It is the duty of the state to raise the nutritional and living standard of the people and to improve public health.” has taken a great leap in developing the sanitary needs of their nation which moves towards their ultimate goal of achieving the global power.

One such effort is the “Swach Bharat Abhiyan” campaign initiated on 2nd October 2014 at New Delhi. This can be identified as the most significant cleanliness project, launched with the leadership of the present Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. This campaign solely aims on developing the sanitary needs of rural villages and also to support the maintenance of the cleanliness of the state as a whole. This also is done in respect of Great Mahatma Gandhi, who toiled day and night to make India great. As Modi stated “A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019”

The Prime Minister also has shown interest in this mission not only through words but also through his actions. He was seen participating to a cleaning mission in Varanasi and on the banks of the river Ganges.

Moving towards the target, “constructing a toilet at every house by the year 2019”, SBA has so far;

  • Built 6,26,9699 toilets in households.
  • Made 3, 23560 OD free villages.
  • Made 314 OD free districts.
  • Made 11 OD free states

In addition to the above movement, other methods such as charging a fine of Indian rupees 1000, if they are found guilty of OD, have been implemented and are carried on.

These practices account to a great achievement when it is concerned with the health of women where they are persuaded to safely fulfil their basic physical needs.


Mindsets adjusted

Like Jaya in the movie “Toilet Ek Prem Katha” who influences women in her new village to win over their right to fulfil their physical needs privately and safely, in reality or in the bigger picture, due to the constant awareness campaigns, the minds of women has also begun to change. They now are slowly adapting to perform their needs hygienically. One true example is the case of Babita who married Manish Kumar only after her in-laws built a bathroom at their home. It was a precondition imposed by the parents of the bride that there should be a bathroom at their housing premises if he is to marry her. Like that of Jaya in the movie, even though she was not aware that there was no bathroom at her in- laws’ house when she first went there, she could achieve her target after sometime with the help of her husband, Babita was able to move in to her new home as dignified daughter-in-law.

In fact the slogans “No toilet, No bride” is seen portrayed in the public places which displays a clear achievement of the mentalities and the improvement of the dignity of women living rurally. And also they have been able to influence men and demand for a private bathroom claiming “No loo, for the inmates of the home, making them believe that it is also an important part of the house plan and also a factor which determine the dignity of their women.

 Women are seen taking the forefront of making people aware of the importance of having their own private space as a bathroom such as, 106 years old Kunwar Bai who counsels people on the above fact after selling her two goats who were the only source of her income, to build two toilets at her home and also Kajol Roy who sold her jewelry to construct 100 toilets in her hometown Chhattisgarh, depicting a brave woman who strongly believes “Toilet means self-respect for women. Jewellery will come sooner or later”

Apart from this, most importantly it needs to be mentioned that as Sri Lankans, we are way forward than Indians when it comes to the subject of personal hygiene, where there is a separate space for a lavatory even in most rural villages in Sri Lanka and people are more aware of proper disposal of waste matter. This might be because of the higher literacy level of our country which we should be thankful.

Therefore, in conclusion, if India could achieve this target of securing hygiene in their states, women would surely have a safe future which is an essential fact as they are the driving force of the world and they should be protected and nurtured.

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