Two teenage girls in India were brutally gang-raped and murdered, left hanging from a mango tree in a crime that has drawn new waves of protests across the country. The horrific act is also drawing attention to a problem that more than one billion people across the globe face and may be a contributing factor to rape and other forms of sexual violence: a lack of access to toilets.
In the village of Katra Sadatganj, located in Uttar Pradesh, the two girls left their home last Tuesday night in search of a place to relieve themselves. Open air defecation, as the practice is clinically known, is common in India, where an estimated 638 million people — just over half of India’s total population — have no other option, according to UNICEF. The night in question led the girls out into the fields near their home, where four men abducted them, raped them, strangled them, then hung their bodies from a nearby tree.
Despite recent gains, worldwide there are still 1 billion people who practice open defecation according to estimates from the United Nations. The focus on trying to correct this practice has historically focused on preventing the spread of diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and hepatitis A. But as terrible as the crime against the girls in Uttar Pradesh is, they are far from the only women who have been raped while trying to locate a site to defecate.
A 2011 report from NGOs Sanitation and Hygiene Applied Research for Equity (SHARE) and WaterAid examined the link between sexual violence against women and access to proper sanitation. In doing so, they spoke with women in slums inside New Delhi. “The toilets themselves were associated with fear in Sunder Nagri and New Seemapuri,” the report reads. “In both slums, boys were said to loiter around the toilets at night. In Sunder Nagri there were cases of boys hiding in the cubicles at night waiting to rape those who entered.” In one slum, “women and girls faced lewd remarks, physical gestures and rape when they relieved themselves in the bushes.”
Some critics have said that the focus on sanitation as an issue ignores the larger issue of rape and deterring men from assaulting women in the first place. As an article from First Point India explains, however, nobody is arguing that “the sole reason for sexual violence is the lack of a loo. It is an undeniable fact, however, that the absence of a safe toilet adds to the vulnerability of women. And there are numbers to show it.” The First Point article cites a BBC report in which “a senior police official in Bihar said some 400 women would have ‘escaped’ rape last year if they had toilets in their homes.”
The situation also isn’t limited to India. A girl in Indonesia was raped in 2012 while returning from defecating near her home. In Kenya, a resident of a slum outside of Nairobi warned IRIN news service that despite the construction of new latrines, “you can’t at night because you will be beaten by thugs, and for women, you can be raped.”
And in a more recent report, WaterAid spoke to a woman who recently had a toilet constructed near her home in Madagascar. “It was frightening … so most of the time we went with friends,” Madeleine Miandrivazo told WaterAid of the site where she used to have to take her children, six kilometers away. “There are men who are not really nice. When they see lonely women there they rape them or something like that. I know that something like that already happened. I don’t want my daughter to go to that place because I’m afraid of her being raped. I’m teaching her to always use the toilet instead.”
The United Nations has been on the forefront of attempting to provide a safer option such as the one Miandrivazo now has to everyone in the world. Last year, the U.N. declared the first World Toilet Day to increase knowledge of the issue. One the Millennium Development Goals set in 2000 — specifically Goal 7, Target 10 — calls for the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking-water and basic sanitation to be cut in half by 2015. Unfortunately, that goal is the most off-track of the MDGs, at the moment projected to miss the mark by half a billion people, and if current rates of installation continue it may not be met until 2026.
But the number of those who have no alternative to open air defecation has been on the decline in recent years, the U.N. says, as since 1990, almost 1.9 billion people have gained access to an improved sanitation facility. And according to the Associated Press, the number of people with access to facilities around the girls’ village is about to increase. “Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement — a group that helps build low-cost toilets — estimates the country needs about 120 million more latrines,” the AP writes. “Since the attack, his group has decided to construct toilets in 108 houses in the girls’ village.” This could prevent their neighbors from facing the same fate as the girls in the mango tree.