An overwhelming percentage of rural women who are forced to wait till nightfall to relieve themselves face the risk of being raped, the government has admitted ahead of a conference to review sanitation situation in the country.
"Sexual harassment and rape are a risk for many women who without a household toilet have to wait until nightfall to seek the privacy of darkness outside to relieve themselves," says the Centre's note on 'Swachh Bharat Mission' distributed to state ministers for discussion as they meet here tomorrow.
The note prepared by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation emphasised the need for sanitation, saying while having a toilet is important for everyone, access to safe, clean toilets brings particular benefits to women and girls.
"Freed from the need to defecate in the open, they no longer have to suffer the indignity, humiliation and often verbal and physical abuse when relieving themselves," it says.
The government says it becomes more traumatic for women during menstruation, pregnancy and postnatal periods.
"Women and girls don't need toilet facilities just for defecation; they also need privacy and dignity when menstruating. The need for sanitation facilities within homes and in public places, which meet women's physical and psychological demands cannot be over-emphasised," it says.
The Ministry has prepared the note after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his Independence Day speech, laid stress on "dignity of women" and pitched for making provisions for building toilets wherein women should not defecate in open.
The note says separate toilets at school mean more girls are likely to attend and continue even after puberty to complete their education.
"There is an immediate need to provide adequate number of toilets separately for boys and girls in all schools of the country," it says.
Noting that about 590 million persons in rural areas defecate in the open, the note says the mindset of a major portion of the population habituated to open defecation needs to be changed.
The Centre says many of the rural Indians already have a toilet but prefer to defecate in the open.
"The biggest challenge therefore is triggering behaviour change in vast section of rural population regarding need to use toilets. Changing mindset is very important," it says.
UNICEF reports indicate that it is the poorest quintile of the population which has the least access to sanitation.
"Inadequate access to water, sanitation and hygiene services keep children especially adolescent girls out of school, and keeps women in poor health and in poverty and destined to bear and raise children who are sick and nutritionally poor," UNICEF has said.
The Centre is vigorously pushing the agenda of sanitation to end the menace of open defecation in the country by 2019, the 150 birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.