Women in India's villages still have to pay a high cost in terms of mental and physical pain and financial loss because they are often compelled to neglect personal hygiene by bathing hurriedly in the open.
By Meghna Mukherjee*
When people are poor and unable to meet even basic daily necessities, maintaining hygiene becomes a secondary issue. Bathing regularly is more like performing a ritual, neglecting its basic function of maintaining cleanliness.
This situation prevails in most parts of rural India. The issue of survival and basic sustenance holds much deeper value than building bathrooms. The logic is simple: why should I waste my limited resources on building a bathroom when I don't even have money to meet my daily needs?
It is a sad truth that the issue of bathing has never been considered a problem grave enough to be discussed, even by women. It is strange that although women understand that secure bathing spaces are important not just for maintaining privacy but for the greater goal of cleanliness, they have never talked about it much. They have either accepted it as a tradition that has been carried out through generations or accepted the fact that there are more important things in life than bathing properly.
For them feeding their family, educating their children and making their home a better place to live is more important to them than their health.
This brings us to an important question: What are the opportunity costs of not maintaining personal hygiene? Putting it in simpler terms—the costs that women have to bear in terms of mental, physical pain and monetary loss when they are exposed to unhygienic conditions.
In a typical rural setup, where there are limited financial resources and a lot of mouths to feed, needs have to be prioritised. Women are more likely to face health insecurities than men, so it is far more important for them to seek medical care. But in such situations where they face the risk of infections, they forgo the decision to visit a doctor, as doing so would mean a strain on family resources. So for her, the opportunity cost of choosing medical care would mean losing out on her family's needs.
For them feeding their family, educating their children and making their home a better place to live is more important to them than their health. It is because of this that in many parts of the country, women still go and bathe outside but fetch water to their homes so that their daughters can live comfortably.
Evidence from a pilot study
Against this background, a pilot research study was conducted in Chamrabaad village of Bokaro district of Jharkhand, where a small sample of 29 women was interviewed about bathing practices and the consequences it has on them. The sample was chosen randomly on a voluntary basis. Data thus collected has been classified, analysed, interpreted and conclusions were drawn.
Of the total sample, approximately 44.8% have never gone to school, 31% have studied up to class 10 and only one out of the sample is pursuing her studies after Intermediate. More than 95% of the women who were interviewed took a bath on a daily basis and used soap or other cleaning agents, whereas 100% reported that they took a bath regularly during their menstrual cycle.
Out of 29 women who were interviewed on a one-on-one basis, only three bathed in closed spaces (makeshift arrangements with thatched roofs and walls). Most others bathed in ponds that were less than 1km away from their houses. It was observed that even in better off households, women visited the ponds to bathe as there was no water available in the spaces created in their homes.
Around 75% of women bathed in a pond within 1km from their house. Only 6% took a bath near the well but even they did not have a closed space. All the women bathed while wearing clothes.
"If you search the bottom of the lake, you will find the whole bed covered with napkins," said the mother of a 15-year-old who uses sanitary napkins.
It was also observed that the majority (73%) of the women use cloth that can be recycled for protection during menstruation. Most of the women, around 72%, clean the cloth where they take a bath. In fact, they wash their used menstrual cloth in the same source where they bathe.
Only 3.4% women reported disposing the napkin safely with other waste, while 17% said that they dumped the napkin in the same pond where they took a bath. "We place the soiled napkin in between our toes, and when we enter the water to take a bath, we release it and it sinks down to the ground," a 13-year-old girl said. "If you search the bottom of the lake, you will find the whole bed covered with napkins," said the mother of a 15-year-old who uses sanitary napkins.
Not just a matter of cleanliness
Talking with a middle-aged woman in a village in Jharkhand, she confessed that she still goes to a nearby pond to bathe, but ensures that her daughter has a secure and private space to do so. She thinks it is too late for her now, but her daughter who is young needs to maintain hygiene as that is of utmost importance. The respondent says that when she was young, there were lots of financial constraints. But now things have changed for the better and they can even think of building a closed space near her home only for her daughter.
The second point, which should be made clear, is that having a disease or an infection not only affects a woman physically but also financially. The concept of opportunity costs comes into play again when we see it in terms of daily wages. Women in rural India are mostly engaged in fieldwork. They either work on their own lands or as farm labourers. In both situations, missing a day's work can mean missing on their wage, which can be either in the form of cash or kind. Mostly it is seen that women are paid for their labour in kind, which implies that being absent from their work would make them miss on their daily food. As time and money are scarce resources for women, they choose to work and earn their living rather than spending both on seeking treatment. They might try to postpone treatment or tolerate the pain without compromising on their duties.
Culture of silence
The third point to remember is the innate conditioning of women to remain silent. This culture of silence is highly prevalent in rural India. Not only do they not speak up against any medical condition they may face, they do not even ask for the basic facilities that are lacking from their life.
For example, the need for secured bathing spaces is felt by all the women who bathe in ponds, rivers or near hand pumps. However, when asked if they had ever expressed their discomfort to their husbands, most of the women confessed that they did not do so because they felt the issue was too trivial to bring up. One of the women said, "We can't take so much time to bathe, we all have work to do and for a two-minute bath we cannot bother our husbands and ask them to build us a bathroom."
For a woman in rural India, opportunity cost refers to giving up the benefits of medical care for the sake of actions that might help the whole family. Financial constraints act as barriers that force a woman to prioritise her family's needs over her own. This brings us to an important question: Is economic well-being the answer to everything? Hypothetically speaking, will building bathrooms ever be on the list of a rural Indian household after taking care of their basic roti, kapda and makaan? Toilets have received plenty of advocacy—now it is now time to give bathrooms their due importance.
Meghna Mukherjee is a junior research fellow at the Centre for Development Research, Pune.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.