Silence is not something you come across often in India. But there we were, in the middle of a rural area in the country’s north, where it was dark, silent and still. The workers had come in from the fields, the cows had been brought in and milked, and there was a lull while families stopped and took a deep breath.
I was at a small village in the state of Bihar, one of the poorest states of northern India, working with Opportunity International Australia. As the fog set in, we huddled into a van to take the potholed roads back to the town of Buxar for the night. We weren’t even two minutes down the road when a woman’s silhouette appeared from nowhere.
The driver slowed right down, and we stared back into the face of a lone woman, standing motionless by the edge of the road with a small tin bowl in her hands. Another hundred metres down the road, another woman appeared. And another. And another.
We were interrupting the silent, private moment that nearly one billion people around the world experience every day: open defecation. In Bihar, open defecation is particularly prevalent – 83 per cent according to 2011 census data. Roughly, that means that only two in every 10 people have access to a toilet.
The consequences of this extend far beyond the inconvenience of not being able to duck to the loo anytime. Firstly, there are the health issues. Open defecation contaminates the waterways, making drinking water unsafe and causing illnesses like diarrhoea. Then there are the problems that stem from only being able to go to the bathroom at certain hours – while men can squat any time of day, women are expected to go in privacy, which means going in the darkness. This means that many women purposefully dehydrate themselves so they can avoid going, which leads to other health problems such as urinary tract infections.
As well as health issues, not having access to a private toilet poses a safety problem too. Earlier this year, two teenage cousins in northern India made their daily journey into the fields outside their village because they had no toilet at home. In the darkness, they were gang-raped and killed – left hanging from a tree for their family to find hours later. Police in Bihar say that at least 400 women could have avoided rape last year if they’d had private toilets in their homes. But the solution is not as simple as building toilets – the silence around the issue of open defecation stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding around why a private toilet is important.
In communities where literacy levels are low and poverty levels are high, knowledge is crucial to improving health outcomes for many families who still lack access to toilets, clean water and basic health and hygiene information. Slowly, this is changing through education programs led by local women, known as community health leaders. I saw this in action when I met a mother called Nisha the next day.