Let’s Talk Incentives: Toilets, Girls, and Violence

By Anupma Jain

Access to household toilets is often seen as just a water and sanitation issue or a public health concern. But the recent murders of two young Indian girls have highlighted another aspect – women’s safety and security.

Access to household toilets is often seen as just a water and sanitation issue or a public health concern. But the recent murders of two young Indian girls have highlighted another aspect—women’s safety and security.

As reported in the media, the two teenage girls went into the fields by their village in Uttar Pradesh in search of a discreet place to relieve themselves and never returned. Instead, the girls were found raped and hanged from a mango tree on the outskirts of the village.

The case has aroused public outrage and intense media scrutiny. It has also highlighted the importance of accessible toilets in protecting girls and women from the increased risk of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence.

Around the world, an estimated  2.5 billion people live without toilets, forcing a majority of them to defecate in open areas—in fields, along rivers, or in alleyways. About two-thirds live in Asia and the Pacific. In India alone, more than half of the country’s 1.2 billion people do not have a toilet and the country is home to the highest number of people practicing open defecation.

This leaves girls and women highly vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence, since they must walk in the dark or go to isolated places to find the privacy they need to defecate or manage their menstruation. The Guardian, quoting the Times of India, reported that the police in one district in Uttar Pradesh found that 95% of reported cases of rape and molestation took place when women and girls left their homes to “answer a call of nature.”

Without access to basic sanitation in the home, girls’ and women’s dignity, safety, and security are compromised. ActionAid International’s Safe City Initiative and WaterAid’s report We Can’t Wait both emphasize the role public amenities in homes and public locations play in reducing the risks of violence against girls and women and in helping them to improve their personal hygiene, especially during menstruation.

Encouraging access to improved sanitation facilities at home, however, sometimes requires incentives to defray the cost and to overcome deeply entrenched cultural mindsets. The role of incentives needs to be recognized and used more often in public policy and infrastructure programs to motivate decisions, action, and change.

One creative step is India’s "no toilet, no bride" campaign, which encourages women to demand a toilet as a condition of marriage. The campaign has seen some women seeking a divorce, or even leaving their husband’s home due to a lack of adequate facilities.

Another example is the Gates Foundation’s "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge", which provides incentives to researchers and inventors to develop innovative approaches to safely and sustainably manage human waste in a cost effective manner for poor households in urban areas. These new technologies should cost less than $0.05 per user per day, destroy 100% of pathogens in human waste, and not require electricity or a sewer connection.

In a similar vein, "toilet guru", Bindeshwar Pathak,  and the founder of Sulabh International—which has built more than a million toilets in Indian homes over the past four decades—has helped construct hundreds of household and public toilets that convert waste to compost or biogas for use as fertilizer or energy.

In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, under an ADB-assisted project, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport along with water supply utilities and district governors, introduced a campaign in 2008 which provided “free” piped water supply connections to households with an hygienic toilet. In response, sanitation coverage increased from less than 40% in some project towns to nearly 100% in 2013.

And in Cambodia, under another ADB-assisted project, the Ministry of Rural Development provided sanitation grants to poor households through a community-driven initiative based on the country’s Identification of Poor Households Program.  It changed households’ willingness to pay for toilets as a result of awareness and social pressure, and helped level the playing field for those who cannot afford a toilet-which are regarded as status symbols. As a result, sanitation coverage rose in project communes from about 14% in 2009 when the initiative began, to 52% in 2013.

These measures clearly show how public policy and infrastructure projects can include incentives or conditions to bring about change and help break through often entrenched social norms. Like conditional cash transfer programs, which encourage families to send their children to school or to seek regular medical checkups, sanitation incentives might just save the lives of girls and women who wander into the darkness to "answer a call of nature.”