Exploring the Association Between Women Empowerment and Sanitation in India – The Wire Science

Women near the Jama Masjid in Delhi. Photo: Flickr/Riccardo Maria Mantero, CC-BY NC ND 2.0.

Open defecation (OD) disproportionately affects women’s safety and dignity in India. Inequitable gender norms dictate that unlike men, women cannot be seen during OD. This is why they tend to travel to isolated places in the dark (before sunrise and after sunset) to relieve themselves. The inopportune timing and remoteness of the OD spots make them an easy target. The unsettling incident of the rape and hanging of two young girls, who were on their way to practice OD in Uttar Pradesh, in May 2014 shook the nation. This incident was instrumental to bring forth the issue of rampant sexual harassment and abuse face by women while practising OD.

At the same time, traditional gender roles in Indian households gives more power to men, making women dependent on their guardians and limits their role in undertaking important economic decisions (like building toilets) and control over financial resources. Similarly, even if a women does have a say and is able to finance the toilets using her earned money, unequal access to assets like land make her susceptible to the permission of her in-laws. This prompts a question: would removing these barriers and empowering women be associated with better sanitation outcomes? Let’s use the recently launched fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5: 2019-2020) factsheet to explore this link.

The literature considers empowerment as a multi-faceted concept which involves “women gaining greater control over resources and ideologies” (source). It involves greater participation in the decision-making process; access and control over assets and more recently, access to the internet. The NFHS-5 factsheet gives us information about the fraction of women who responded “yes” to the seven empowerment indicators:

1. Currently married women who usually participate in three household decisions

2. Women who worked in the last 12 months and were paid in cash

3. Ownership of house and/or land (joint or alone)

4. Ownership of bank account which they use themselves

5. Ownership of phone which they use themselves

6. Use of hygienic methods during menstruation (aged 15-24 years), and

Women who have ever used the internet.

To find out the fraction of empowered women in a state, I took the weighted average of the women who are empowered along the seven indicators mentioned in the previous paragraph. I also used state-level information for the fraction of households using improved sanitation facilities.

Association between fraction of households using improved sanitation facilities and fraction of women empowered along the seven indicators. The blue line is fit along the scatter plot. Plot: Payal Seth

The resulting chart shows that there is a strong association between the fraction of households using sanitation facilities and the fraction of women empowered along the seven indicators. These indicators are useful to understand the potential mechanisms that might be driving the results.

For instance, when a woman participates in the household’s decision making, she has a say over important household decisions, like whether to invest money in building a toilet, etc.

Similarly, women who worked and were paid in cash have might have higher control over spending the money. Women’s ownership of assets like house, land, bank account and mobile phones has been linked with investment in more productive assets. Women who use hygienic methods during menstruation will tend to be more aware of the better sanitation practices, potentially leading them to demand facilities and a higher rate of adoption. Women who have access to the internet might be more aware of the recent schemes launched by the government that aids with the process of building the toilets.

The plot also shows that Goa, Kerala, Lakshadweep, Mizoram and Sikkim are the leading states in both empowerment and sanitation outcomes. Bihar lags the most among the other states in both indicators. It is important to keep in mind that this is a simple associative relationship and is not causal in nature.

The Government of India is operating multiple of women empowerment schemes. These include Mahila-e-Haat (a part of the Digital India initiative, where the women can showcase their work to a broader audience), Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (a campaign that aims to combat female foeticide and increase awareness on welfare schemes for young girls); Working Women Hostel (provides safe and reasonable accommodation for working women); Support to Training and Employment Programme for Women (provides useful employment and entrepreneurial skills to women); among others.

These schemes were instrumental in increasing women empowerment between NFHS-4 and NFHS-5 – five years. Sustained investment and promotion of these campaigns will ensure that the rise in empowerment indicators is not reversed. Since our results suggest that women’s participation in household’s decision making, control over assets and access to more information are positively associated with better sanitation outcomes, this implies that the women empowerment policies could improve the building and use of toilets through mechanisms discussed in the previous paragraph.

Realising this key role of women in driving the change in sanitation landscape of India, public policy interventions like the Total Sanitation Campaign and Swachh Bharath Mission are heavily concentrated towards women. For example, the “no toilet, no bride” program was useful to disseminate the message that sanitation is important for women to preserve their dignity and honour. While recognising the importance of women in sanitation is important, I propose that future sanitation interventions should encourage involving men in the sanitation-related decision-making process as well.

There is substantial merit in moving beyond advertising toilets as necessary for only women and placing them as a status symbol for the entire household. Propagating messages and anecdotes from men who are proud to own, use and maintain toilets will encourage men to invest in the infrastructure. This will free the women of the undue and standalone burden of raising their voice for adequate sanitation.

Payal Seth is a consultant at the Tata-Cornell Institute, Cornell University. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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