When you read the term “open defecation,” what do you think of? If you’re like me, you may think of this:
A wide-open field... And that’s about it. We’re trained not to think about people going to the bathroom. But to really understand open defecation, one cannot leave out the people and the social circumstances involved.
“Open defecation” is a well-used term in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) world. It describes the practice of defecating outdoors, i.e., not in a proper toilet, as one billion people around the world do. As Milaap’s fellow working with Guardian, a microfinance institution that exclusively funds water and sanitation projects, in the past two months I’ve met many women who took out loans to build toilets. They’ve taught me that the ground realities of open defecation are much more complex than I thought. Here’s what I’ve found:
“Open-defecation” is a bit of a euphemism
In reality, wide-open spaces, like the one shown above, mean no privacy. Privacy is generally the most important criteria used to select a location for open defecation. That’s why villagers look for more secluded areas, like areas with shrubs, denser fields, or the sides of little-used roads or railroad tracks.
On a morning walk, I found this area of undeveloped land that had clearly been turned in to a local place to relieve oneself:
Places for open defecation are obviously contaminated by faecal matter, but these roadsides and brambles often gather litter and other debris as well:
These places may offer privacy, but present other dangers - thorns, bugs, snakes, obstacles to trip over, and more. The threat of disease looms wide with germ-coated waste, debris, and litter. For additional privacy, women and girls often wait until the sun is down. However, this darkness increases the risk of molestation.
There’s taboo around open defecation, even though everyone is doing it
“What did you do before you had your own bathroom?” I ask the women who took out toilet loans. Can you guess the most common reply I receive? Giggles. Giggles from the woman I asked, and giggles from the inevitable group of neighbour women who’ve gathered around. Or sometimes I get a look of confusion, and I can imagine the borrower thinking, why is this girl asking me a question with an obvious and uncomfortable answer?
All over the world there is taboo around going to the bathroom. In English, we have many euphemisms for defecation - “going to the bathroom,” “going number two,” “relieving oneself,” and just “going.” We even wrap the places we defecate in disguising names, like “bathroom,” “restroom,” and “washroom.” If there’s taboo in well-educated societies that know the importance of proper sanitation, imagine what it’s like in conservative, rural India.
According to the World Health Organization, 626 million people in India defecate in the open, which is “more than twice the number of the next 18 countries combined.” When talking to the CEO of Guardian, I learnt that typically 60% of households lack basic water or sanitation infrastructure in the villages they begin to work in. Although many people do it, and many of them find it difficult, villagers rarely speak about open defecation. The everyday nature of it is both cause and effect of this taboo. However, organizations like Guardian play an important role in educating people about sanitation and sparking these conversations.
Gramalaya, Guardian's parent organization, has a WASH training centre in Kolakkudipatti with all kinds of educational murals:
Inconvenience is a greater motivator than health
Before building toilets, most women I’ve met had grown accustomed to openly defecating, but still found it uncomfortable. However, when describing difficulties, they’d mostly tell me about the long distances to travel, the elements of nature to face (rain, bugs, thorns), and the threat of darkness. Rarely has a borrower mentioned disease or illness. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not facing any health effects from open defecation; more likely they just don’t make the connection between illnesses and unhygienic practices.
An important job that WASH NGOs play is educating communities and thereby increasing their demand for things like toilets. When first beginning to work in a village, GUARDIAN employees assess the need for toilets and the available water connections. But this need only turns into demand from the community once they hold educational meetings. While some villagers may have already want a toilet, others never really think about it until these information sessions.
A borrower I met who is very happy with her new bathroom:
Open defecation is a serious problem that can only be stopped when families can access toilets. With support from Milaap lenders, GUARDIAN makes this infrastructure attainable for the working poor of rural India. Contribute today to make a difference.