Changing gears: Can the open defecation conversation move beyond subliminal patriarchal messaging?

By Mukta Naik and Kimberly Noronha, both Senior Researchers at CPR

In today’s fast paced, slogan-driven policy environment, the pressure by the political masters (and indeed, the polity) on the bureaucracy to deliver on promises is enormous. The Prime Minister’s declaration of a “Swachh Bharat” by October 2019, complete with the status of an Open-Defecation Free (ODF) India is a commendable goal. But in a scenario of tight deadlines, the temptation is to pluck low hanging fruit, which in this case is women’s dignity and honour.

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Photo: Creative Commons License

We live in a patriarchal society; we don’t have to like it, but that is a fact. Patriarchal values are structured around women’s position and identity in society relative to men – largely linked to control over women’s sexuality. The protection of women’s dignity is linked to the honour of the household in particular, and the community at large under patriarchy. So, the logic holds, if you want SMART results, use existing cultural values to, as UNICEF advertises it, “take the poo to the loo”.

Consequently, on 2nd October 2014, the Prime Minister thundered: “I feel most pained that even our mothers and sisters have to go in open. We have to remove this blot… We should do this much at least for the dignity of our mothers and sisters”. Following in his footsteps are the central ministries for Rural Development and, Drinking Water and Sanitation: Bahu betiyan bahar na jayein, Ghar mein hi shauchalay banvayein, [Daughters and Daughters-in-law shouldn’t go outside, build a toilet inside your house], declares Vidya Balan as the base message in a series of advertisements for Swachh Bharat.

Access to a toilet is a real problem for women in India, especially the poor. Does framing this problem in a patriarchal manner alleviate or exacerbate the problem?
Access to a toilet is a real problem for women in India, especially the poor. Does framing this problem in a patriarchal manner alleviate or exacerbate the problem? Photo credit: Mukta Naik

This strategy seems to be working. During a field visit to a jhuggi in north-west Delhi, the Cities of Delhi research team at the Centre for Policy Research encountered a young mother whose pride about the toilet inside their home, the only one in the jhuggis of about 300 houses, is expressed along the lines of honour and caste. The honour of the women is very important in her Rajput household, she tells us, and no expense is too little to make sure that our daughters remain untainted.

In a Kanpur slum where open defecation is the only option, a mother seeks out the help of NGO Shramik Bharti, a local partner of WaterAid to build a toilet in her home, after her 14-year old daughter got attacked by a drunk man while answering nature’s call one morning. For this mother, the motivation was clear but the larger gains were achieving dignity and police consent (as opposed to harassment) for improving quality of life in the slum through fresh construction.

Researchers Nikhil Srivastav and Aashish Gupta from RICE, opine about how campaigns, like the one featuring Vidya Balan, are patriarchal and reinforce the idea of the ghoonghat or pardah in states like Rajasthan where 94% of women practice ghoonghat/pardah (98% in rural Rajasthan) as per Census 2011. Further, they point out that the idea that toilets will reduce violence against women is problematic considering much of this violence happens within the home, something Indian society remains in deep denial of.

They conclude by suggesting that campaigns for sanitation must advocate changed behaviour for men instead of being stuck on the issue of women’s honour, and recommend that Rajasthan can learn from rural Uttar Pradesh where they found a message on a wall that read: “Shriman khatron ke khiladi, jao shauchalay, chhodo jhaadi” [“Dear Mister Fearless Adventurer, Use a toilet, leave the bush”].

The graffiti is in the right spirit of course, but there is many a feminist who could read subliminal patriarchal reinforcement in “Mister Fearless Adventurer”. For example, this phrase could be seen to be praising men who defecate in the open by appealing to their sense of machismo, and may end up reinforcing the behaviour the campaign seeks to avoid. Although the article does not state when the graffiti went up, both UP and Rajasthan had comparable open defecation (OD) figures in 2011 (Rajasthan: 64% OD population; UP: 63%), so the impact of the graffiti in Uttar Pradesh vis-à-vis the Swachh Bharat messaging in Rajasthan is not immediately clear.

While the article makes the necessary intervention against reinforcing patriarchal norms, in the race to be gender-sensitive to sanitation service delivery, are we missing out on one fundamental Weberian truth – in context verstehen? Men and women live together in society. Targeting one group to the exclusion of others is always going to lead to fall-out. Additionally, attempting to completely ‘sanitise’ the delivery of messaging from the ‘germ’ of culture (including that of patriarchy), may adversely impact OD figures if local communities are unable to relate to the cultural contexts of the messaging,

In her rejoinder to Srivastav and Gupta’s piece, Somya Sethuraman says that the authors have latched onto just one message, taking it out of context. Somya points to other advertisements that feature Vidya Balan, for example, giving diarrhoea tablets to a mother because she has sent out her daughter to defecate in the open and will, inevitably fall sick, therefore making health and not patriarchy the central message. According to her, these kinds of advertisements, all taken together, have had a positive effect, not just on the elimination of open defecation, but also on the overall empowerment of women in rural Rajasthan where a number of them have actually given up the ghoonghat / pardah.

Instead of making it an either-or fight of targeting just men or just women, what other low-hanging fruit can we offer government away from subliminal patriarchal messaging towards the focus of ODF behaviour? Bangladesh has seen an impressive 31% reduction in OD figures from roughly 34% in 1990 to just 3% in 2012. In Bangladesh, the media was not used to shame communities into defecating in household toilets (as is being done in India), but rather to reinforce ODF behaviour by focusing attention on best practices and health related outcomes. The recent declaration of the Nadia district’s (West Bengal) ODF status (which was presented and intensely discussed at the 1st Niti Aayog – CPR Open Seminar on “ODF Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat”, held in May 2015; read report here) was accompanied by a significant reduction in adverse health impacts. In the implementation of their strategy, women and school-going children were the main change agents.

Can we find stronger reasons — like improved quality of life, health, independence, and the intangible pride in one’s village or city —to reinforce the message against OD? And can we work with local communities to re-examine the real issues they face, from within and without?

The Niti Aayog – CPR 1st Open Seminar on “Open Defecation Free (ODF) Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat" was attended by about 100 experts, researchers, practitioners and policymakers.
The Niti Aayog – CPR 1st Open Seminar on “Open Defecation Free (ODF) Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat” was attended by about 100 experts, researchers, practitioners and policymakers. Photo credit: Kimberly Noronha