Geographies in Depth

To achieve gender equality in India, build more toilets

Villagers sit near the area where a woman was gang-raped at Birbhum district in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal January 24, 2014.

Image: REUTERS/Stringer

Vijay Raju
Head of Strategy, Forum Members, World Economic Forum Geneva
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When we talk about gender equality, the conversation naturally steers towards the workplace and how women should receive the same pay as men. The Global Shapers Annual Survey 2016 also validated this sentiment as more than 60% of millennials all over the world voted equal pay as the most important factor that will contribute to gender equality at work.

This is very important but gender equality goes well beyond the workplace.

I was recently reflecting on my childhood in South India. We would go on occasional trips to the nearest town, Madurai, which is 12km from the university campus where we lived. After dusk, whenever the vehicle crossed between villages, I used to notice a group of women standing by the side of the road. The driver used to dim the lights and whenever I asked why these women were standing, the elders used to go quiet.

It took several years for me to understand that these women defecate in the open, especially by the road side. As a child, I used to get angry that these people were behaving so irresponsibly in public. It took some time to realize that it is not safe for them to do so anywhere else because of the snakes and other dangerous animals that are so common in the area. By using the side of the road, they were ensuring a certain level of safety, even though it was actually not very safe.

Image: The Economist

When I think about this now, I am stunned by the hardship women have to face to even meet a basic human need. They have to either get up early or wait until evening so they can hide in the open and defecate. This isn't a problem for men, who are more mobile because of their jobs. Women, meanwhile, have to deal with social stigma and risk their lives by unlit roadsides. The problem has become so bad that they often go in groups to protect themselves.

These women aren't looking for any special privilege; all they want is to be able to lead a respectable and safe daily life, like the men in their society. Design thinking talks about empathy and stepping into the shoes of the other people. Can we all imagine what it would be to step into the shoes of these women?

To make things worse, the threat to women doesn't just come from snakes, scorpions and other wildlife. Now, sexual assault and rape has also become a major problem. Rape is a growing threat in India women are often at their most vulnerable when they leave their home to answer nature's call. Two girls, 14 and 15, were found gang raped and hanged after they went to relieve themselves in the dark in the state of Uttar Pradesh in 2014, an event that caused outrage across India.



The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, launched Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, a cleanliness campaign to help the 636 million Indians who didn't have access to toilets when he came to power in 2014. His government allotted more than $1 billion and is relentlessly driving his government to build toilets for every household by 2019. Before coming to power, he had famously said: "Let’s build toilets first and then temples", which is important in a country that has more mobile phones than toilets.

So far, the government has built 24 million toilets, according to the Prime Minister on his radio show. The Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, N Chandrababu Naidu, recently tweeted that Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat are the first to end open defecation in urban areas in their respective states. He also tweeted that he aims to make all rural areas, including every village, as open defecation free by 2019. These are commendable initiatives to create a gender equal society. While cities have improved since then, the villages are still living with this problem.

Equal pay and equal jobs are of course important, but there are millions of women who cannot meet their basic human needs. By focusing only on the workplace, we often forget these important contexts. Let’s ensure that millions of underprivileged women get these basic human rights so that they can lead healthy and normal lives.

For those women, it is a basic right. For the rest of us, it is our duty.

The India Economic Summit is taking place in New Delhi, India, from 6-7 October.

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Geographies in DepthEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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