Prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi promised India’s 815 million voters that he would ensure that every home had a potty before he would even build the controversial temple in the town of Ayodhya, which right-wing nationalists have been clamoring for. “Toilets first, temple later,” he said.
That was months before last week’s gang rape and lynching of two teenage girls in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh as they went into the fields near their huts to relieve themselves under cover of darkness because their homes, like millions of others in India’s villages, had no toilets.
Modi’s campaign promise has taken on a sense of even more urgency after the rapes. When he campaigned, women’s safety was probably not on his mind. Open defecation is a threat to human health. According to UNICEF, nearly 50 percent of India’s population defecates in the open. In impoverished regions of the nation, the situation is especially acute.
Of course, it’s not the first time that girls and women in India have faced sexual violence while going out to relieve themselves without a male escort to watch in case of trouble, braving snakes and local wildlife.
But even having a male escort is no guarantee against sexual assaults. During the wave of protests in Egypt last year to oust President Mohamed Morsi, women became vulnerable to sexual assault in public places. In India, in December 2012, a young woman was gang raped on a Delhi bus in the presence of her male friend, who had been beaten up by the rapists. And in Mumbai last year, a young photojournalist was gang raped in broad daylight, after she was separated from her male colleague outside an abandoned mill.
Lack of access to water also makes girls and women vulnerable to sexual assaults. In the Congo and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, hundreds of women make the endless trek for water each day, carrying jerry cans in their hands and a baby strapped to their back or growing inside them. The journey often ends in tragedy, with many of them becoming victims of rape or other violent attacks, particularly if they leave their homes at dawn or at sunset.
Rapes will continue in India if elected officials think they are nothing more than “unfortunate” incidents. That’s how the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, where last week’s rapes occurred, described the spike in rapes in his state. And his father was reported as saying during the recent election campaign that rapists should not receive capital punishment because “boys will be boys.” I hope the voters remember their words when these men seek public office again.
In the past four decades, the number of reported rape cases in India spiked nearly 900 percent to 24,923 in 2012, according to the statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau. Since many of the rapes go unreported, this is probably a conservative number.
Some might argue that equipping homes with toilets is not the solution to the problem of rapes in India, but it is definitely a step in the right direction for making women less vulnerable to sexual assaults. Modi should also consider other social improvements in India like making sure girls receive a sound education so they can feel empowered. He should also do whatever he can to make casteism – ingrained in the DNA of Indians — a thing of the past.
The father of one of the victims in last week’s gang rape said police ridiculed him when he sought help in finding his missing daughter. “When I went to the police station, the first thing I was asked was my caste. When I told them what my caste was, they started abusing me,” the father reportedly told the BBC. He said that if the police had acted promptly when he approached them, his daughter might have still been alive.
I can’t help feeling relieved that Modi comes from a chaiwallah community, a so-called backward community, although there are some who dispute that, saying he “downgraded” himself to win votes. In any event, he may be more inclined than someone from the upper echelons of Indian society to feel the dad’s pain.
No one can deny that lack of sanitation, lack of good policing and a caste system that is alive and well in India snuffed out the lives of two young women.
Viji Sundaram is New America Media’s health editor.