Defecation: A Psychological Strain for Women with Disabilities
By Yogesh Kumar Yadav
India has a long tradition of open defecation. This still persists, especially in rural and semi-urban areas. It has been a daunting task for governments to alter the scenario. On second October, 2014, on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, the central government has launched a scheme named, ‘Svachh Bharat Abhiyan’ (Clean India Mission), which aims to build toilets in rural areas on a massive scale, along with sensitization programmes to encourage people in general and women in particular for using public and home-toilets
Whenever the question of toilet and open defecation is discussed, it is generally associated with women’s dignity, health issues, and environmental pollution. Woes of women with disabilities, who are compelled to defecate in public, remain invisible to the policy-makers. It is beyond the imagination to perceive the hardships faced by them while defecating in public. If at times, toilets are in existence their functionality is questionable due to their inaccessible nature. The Persons with Disabilities ‘Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation’ (PWD) Act of 1995 ensures the right of a barrier-free environment for persons with disabilities in public places, work places to public utilities, and so on.
Accessible public utilities are still a distant reality for persons with disabilities even after twenty years of having the PWD Act in force. This I know from personal experience as well as from the reports of other people with disabilities. Many people with disabilities prefer trains to buses for more than 5-6 hour long journeys as buses lack toilet facilities. Non-disabled people can use the overcrowded public toilets generally available at bus depots, but an individual with disability travelling alone in the bus is usually reluctant to use public toilets due to fear of missing the bus. The problems of a woman with disability are further magnified as she is living under the heavy weight of ableism and patriarchy. She does not have the option her male counterpart has to urinate openly. Therefore, to understand the serious concerns of persons with disabilities, the public transportation system has to be made more disabled-friendly as promised by the PWD Act and National Policy for Persons with Disabilities 2006 and accessible toilets inside the public buses need to be constructed.
Toilets at home also need to be made available and accessible as urination and defecation are routine necessities. Thus, making only the public places accessible does not solve the problem of persons with disabilities as they are mostly confined within the four walls of their household. Clean India Mission has a provision for financial assistance to rural residences of people belonging to low income groups, schedule tribes, schedule castes, women, and persons with disabilities for constructing toilets in their homes. Under the Mission, claims are being made for building toilets on a mass scale. It is necessary to examine these claims from the standpoint of persons with disabilities in general and women with disabilities in particular.
The picture of Karade village in Rajgarh district of Rajasthan presents an example of the extremely insensitive behavior of politicians and administrators, as reported in Rajasthan Patrika. An extremely impoverished family comprising of an 80-year-old blind woman and her 55-year-old son who is impaired live in a house that is deprived of toilet. The son somehow carries his mother when they both have the need to relieve themselves and the place they have to go to is quite far. Despite their repeated requests, no politician has given them a sympathetic ear. They have been told to build their toilet first on their own expenses which would later on be reimbursed. How can administration be so insensitive, when it is a proven fact that disability and poverty are generally interconnected?
In the absence of toilets, there are a number of issues for persons with disabilities which are completely untouched. Inaccessible environment, insensitive behavior of people, dependency, privacy, diet-control, medical issues, problems of the rainy season and sexual violence are few key concerns of persons with disabilities in general and women with disabilities in particular. In rural areas, paths are grassy and muddy, with cuts, zigzags, pits and with uneven surfaces even where there is a path. All these pose a variety of challenges to independent mobility. It is tough for a visually impaired person to locate the right path as it does not follow a uniform pattern. People with orthopedic disabilities are more prone to the risk of slipping. Rainy season exacerbates further the mobility problems as paths become marshy due to heavy rain. Conditions become worse in hilly areas, owing to uneven surface of land and the presence of wild animals.
Environmental factors make people with disabilities dependent on others for their basic needs. Thus, most of them have to be accompanied by their family-members to fields for defecation. One of my respondents, Pooja, states that going alone to the fields is almost impossible because of the fear of wild animals. A safe and hidden place is needed to relieve oneself which is difficult to find alone. This question becomes more serious and pertinent in the hilly and forest areas. Just a year back on 14 August, 2015, a 33-year-old partially blind man was killed by a wild elephant while urinating outside of his house at Vadattupara, near Kothamangalam, Kerala, as reported in The New Indian Express.
The sense of dependency on others imposes several serious restrictions and thus manifold indignities. For instance, they have to regulate their dietary habits according to their family-members’ convenience. Sumit, another respondent, informs me that at home, he is asked to have less food especially at night as family members do not want to be disturbed in case he has to relieve himself in the night. In order to avoid many diseases and ill-effects of summer, maximum water intake is encouraged among people. The study on the contrary reveals that people with disabilities restrain themselves from drinking water. One blind female respondent says, “I drink very limited water because the more I drink, the more I feel the need to urinate. I live in a joint family of twelve members. Sometimes, guests also come. So moving out of the house frequently to urinate in front so many people is shameful for me.” A blind male respondent says that he only feels uncomfortable when there are guests at home. Improper diet and insufficient water-intake can result in a variety of diseases and impede a proper growth of the body due to inadequate supply of nutrition.
In many cases, they have to take attendants for attending the call of nature and to find protected place for the cause. Thus, the standard privacy attached to this private act is violated. One of the respondents says, “I find it difficult to tell somebody that I want to go to the toilet because in that case, people consider me as a burden on them. My problem becomes worse when I am sometimes down with loose motions.” One woman narrated that sometimes her attendant makes her sit in an open area because other places are inaccessible and finds a hidden place for herself. In that case, she feels ashamed and uncomfortable due to the frequent movement of passersby. Another respondent says that he has to control himself for hours. There are few cases where parents do not go anywhere, leaving their disabled child alone at home as they have apprehensions about the toilet needs of their child and worry about not being available in time of need. Forced regulation of excretion for long periods can lead to life-threatening consequences.
Many times, women with disabilities have to undergo several humiliating circumstances when someone cannot assist them either because they are busy or because they are insensitive towards their concerns. One such incident occurred with one of the respondents. She explains that she once went to relieve herself with her friends and during defecation, all of a sudden, her friends ran away due to the fear of some strange and unknown threat and left her alone. Hearing the scary noise, she also attempted to run behind them and, consequently, fell down and got hurt. Besides, on several occasions, attendants insist on them to hurry up which makes one more anxious. We seem to be living in a cultural silence about our biological needs! Talking about sex and even about one’s menstrual cycle is a social taboo, as we have known for a long time. Against this background, the uneasiness experienced by women with disabilities during their menstrual cycle can hardly be elucidated in the absence of toilets or accessible restrooms as they have to use washrooms frequently during this time. They are also at the highest risk of sexual assault as they may not be able to scream, run away or identify the perpetrators depending on the nature of their specific disability.
It can be inferred that women with disabilities are denied their natural right, are dependent, psychologically disturbed, and live under immense pressure and bear all sorts of abuses. Their right to live with dignity is at stake. Thus, in order to address this problem, periodical surveys must be conducted at the local level or at least district-wise to locate the disabled households without toilets and they must be encouraged and financially assisted to build toilets in their houses.
Yogesh Kumar Yadav is an M.Phil. student at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He is particularly interested in history and disability studies research. He is a blind researcher who belongs to District Auraiya, Uttar Pradesh, India.
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