“We Have No Choice But to Stay Hungry!”
Voices of women from rural Bihar fall through the cracks of the failed system
Kisan Tola Basti of Purnia District, in Bihar's Champawati village, wears a cloak of gloom. There are few villagers here, mostly women as the men have had to migrate in search of better opportunities in the big cities. The women are forced to stay back and continue to bear the brunt of society's cruel injustices, and the wrath of failed governance.
There is little hope for these villagers, as they find themselves deprived of the most basic facilities in the country. While the government claims credit for its efforts in keeping the country 'open-defecation free', these women have never seen a toilet.
Despite the district administration spreading awareness among people about using toilets to ensure cleanliness as mandated under the 'Swachh Bharat Abhiyan', there is none available here. The residents are forced to go to faraway fields every morning to relieve themselves. If that was not enough, they face the daily humiliation of being chased away by the owners of those fields. The women are denied their most basic need.
The women are then forced to train their bodies according to the passage of the sun. Amina, a 35-year-old ragpicker said “I can only go to relieve myself twice a day, once in the morning before sunrise and once after sunset. During the day, we are often chased and beaten by farm owners. So throughout the day I restrain myself from eating and drinking too much water.”
For bathing, these women depend on ‘makeshift washrooms’ they cover with old rags, and are surrounded by stagnant sewage. As a result, for the girls and women of the area, even the simplest task of taking a bath becomes a daily struggle. “We depend on hand pumps for the water supply. We haven’t got any help from the government, they did come and set up taps, but the water supply never came", recalled Amina.
Pregnant women of the area find themselves at the lowest rung of this discriminatory ladder. To avoid any unpleasantries with the farm owners, many said they would cut down on food and water during the day. They want to avoid facing the embarrassment of running into angry field owners, who barge in, during their most private moments.
A pregnant woman who chose to stay anonymous said, “I have no choice. Eating and sometimes even drinking water during the day can mean venturing into the fields at night.” The choices she is forced to make shows her helplessness to choose between her dignity and the health of her unborn child.
In addition, women face numerous other health risks. Worm infestation is a major health hazard for those defecating in the open. According to the women of Champawati, they are often exposed to unhygienic conditions in the fields. “During monsoon, the areas are flooded and we are constantly under the fear of snake and scorpion bites,'' said the pregnant woman.
It is not just a matter of modesty, privacy, health and hygiene. More urgently, it is also a matter of women’s safety. The hideaways that these women seek refuge in to relieve themselves are often at a distance from the safety of their own homes. Young women and girls are most vulnerable when they step out during the wee hours. It is ironic that the same darkness that veils their modesty also puts them at risk.
Jaswanti Devi, a 32-year-old woman said, “we are often exposed to catcalls from men from nearby villages when we go to relieve ourselves even in the dark. Some even throw stones at us.” Jaswanti said that they are often ignored by the administration, “we don't get any help, be it money, food or land. We are living on the government’s land by the sewage canal. Sometimes even for petty matters, we are asked to move our houses, where do we move? Where do we go? We do not have toilets, when we go to their fields, they chase us with sticks. The government promised us a lot of things but nothing was fulfilled. When the water supply was being distributed, we were cut out.”
Rinku Devi, a mother of three, blamed poverty as their biggest problem. She said, “everything is dependent on money. I have three kids to feed, all born through surgeries. I don’t have enough to feed them, how do you think we will build a toilet?”
It is toughest during menstruation. Most of the women here have never used a sanitary pad. According to them, changing and disposing of a pad with no toilet setup is extremely difficult for them. Sweety Priya, a 27-year-old woman said “most of the women in our village use cloth pads during menstruation. Although I use sanitary pads during menstruation, I don't have a toilet or washroom in my home for privacy to change them. It is very embarrassing, we wrap the used pads, and my husband has to go and throw them far away. We made a makeshift toilet surrounding the handpump area, but changing pads in that almost open setup becomes extremely challenging for me.”
When asked about the reason behind not building a toilet, Shalu Mani, a 55-year-old man said
“the administration people ask us to first build toilets, only then we will get money. But you tell me how we will make a toilet if we don’t have enough money in the first place.”
According to the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation of the Union Ministry of Water Resources, a total of 1.2 crore toilets have been constructed in Bihar under the Swachh Bharat Mission – Rural since October 2, 2014. However, images of around 22 lakh toilets, or 19 per cent, have not been posted, raising doubts about the accuracy of these numbers. The national average for uploading toilet construction images is 94.65%. Bihar, on the other hand, is far behind, having posted images of only 81 per cent of the toilets constructed.
In light of these numbers, the state government's claim that open defecation is no longer a problem in the state seems to be exaggerated.
In order to tackle the problem and ensure the construction of toilets, the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation under the Union Ministry of Water Resources issued guidelines on September 3, 2015. According to these guidelines, at least two verifications may be carried out after self-declaration of achievement of ODF status by any village or Gram Sabha.
“The first verification may be carried out within three months of the declaration to verify the ODF status. Thereafter, in order to ensure the sustainability of ODF, one more verification may be carried out after around six months of first verification,” it stated.
However, according to the Swachh Bharat Mission data, toilets built in 1,374 villages of Bihar have not been verified even once. There are a total of 38,691 villages in the state, out of which 37,317 villages have been verified once under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Rural).
These staggering numbers and lack of management pushes the people from these basti of rural Bihar to the edge. And voices of women fall through the crack of the failed system.These women are part of the crowd but unseen, unheard and uncared for. They are struggling for their basic needs, but more so they are struggling for their existence, their identity, and their choices.
Deprived of basic necessities of life, the issues here are much bigger than cleanliness and hygiene. It is a struggle for survival with no land, no roof and not enough money to even have a day's meal. Relieving themselves out in the open and living in extreme weather without a shelter over their head is not their choice, but the lack of one.