Co-authored with Ms. Mia Zinni
The cloak that attempted to mask India's battle with gender-based violence was ripped off when, in December 2012, a young woman was horrifically gang raped while riding a bus in New Delhi. It would be impossible to overstate the brutality displayed by the five men who so shamelessly victimized, and killed, that woman. While laws in India are changing to preferentially protect women, many are still left wondering whether they truly do have any allies.
I have been working in the field of rural Indian sanitation since 2010 with my organization, Humanure Power. Sexual violence and the lack of access to toilets endured by hundreds of millions of Indians are often conflated. Without access to toilets, women and girls are forced to search alone, most often in darkness, for a safe place in nearby fields to relieve themselves.
Unfortunately, it would be naive to believe that sexual violence against women is a direct by-product of inadequate access to services and infrastructure, in this case, toilets. While improved access to toilets will function to help keep women safe, at its core, gender based violence stems from flawed perceptions of women. These are harbored by individuals and perpetuated by structural and societal flaws. Improved access to toilets is just one structural change that can contribute to reducing sexual violence and improving safety in the Indian context.
Rigid, and deeply entrenched, religious, cultural, economic, and social norms have limited society's dexterity as it attempts to posture for greater gender equality. Development initiatives aiming to overcome these constraints must couple creative programming with creative infrastructure design. Toilets must be designed to provide communities with a place to safely and hygienically relieve themselves, and change the ingrained norms that cause the victimization of women. In the context of community toilet blocks, the model promoted by Humanure Power, this means that toilets should be well lit, clean, and have separate entrances for women and men.
They should also be designed with a space outside of the toilets where women can gather to discuss issues important to them and their families. These spaces should be used to provide women with literacy training and skill building activities that will bolster their economic agency. Women must be afforded the opportunity to generate and implement ideas that will positively affect themselves and the community.
Unfortunately, every time I return to the U.S. from India, I am reminded that the ubiquity of gender-based violence transcends geographical, social, and cultural borders. This past December I attended a rally in New Orleans at which countless women recounted their harrowing stories of being raped. They were asked to speak by Voices for the Silenced, a group that advocates for reform in the New Orleans Police Department's Special Victims Unit, and their methods in handling sexual assault and rape cases. The need for sweeping overhaul in police procedure is evident given the mounting pile of evidence that suggests how blatantly careless the NOPD's SVU has been. Thus thousands of miles away from the Indian countryside, women continue being victimized not only by misogynistic predators, but also by a failing and misguided system.
In the U.S., where we enjoy the privilege of greater freedom of expression, we must confront the victimization of women with equal urgency. There is no reason a woman should be cat called while walking down the street and there is absolutely no reason why we should be sitting back when hundreds of rape kits go untested. It is vital that we all engage in conversations about how we can improve safety on our streets, at our college campuses, and at home. Failing to do so would make us complicit in the tragic subjugation of women.