Only a man who has little regard for women or for people of other beliefs would make the kind of crude and insensitive remark that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi made recently. At a function promoting rural sanitation, Mr. Modi is reported to have said, "There is one community which insists on 'burqa' for their women in public. But to respond to nature's call, the same women are forced to go to jungles in the absence of sanitary facilities at home ..."

Reflection of rural India

This level of bigotry from a politician who has distinguished himself by remaining completely unremorseful, despite universal condemnation for the horrific events that took place in Gujarat in 2002 and thereafter is hardly surprising. But instead of taking cheap swipes at Muslims, the Gujarat Chief Minister should hang his head in shame that despite all his talk of Gujarat Gaurav (Gujarat Pride), millions of poor women in the State — not just Muslim but Hindu, Adivasi, of every caste and creed — are deprived of basic facilities like water and sanitation. Even if water is available, at a cost and at a distance, no one seems to care about providing appropriate sanitation facilities for women.

Why is lack of sanitation a women's concern? Because most men do not face the same problem as do women.

 •  Sanitation: Hidden gender problem

What prevails in Gujarat is a reflection of the situation all over rural India and in poor countries. India's sanitation coverage is just 30 per cent. In other words, one in every three Indians does not have access to a toilet. In cities, the situation is marginally better with 58 per cent coverage. But given the disparity between cities, the metropolitan areas would be adding to this more favourable percentage while towns would be as bad if not worse off than some rural areas. And in India's villages, the coverage is a pathetic 18 per cent.

With all our boasts about our growing economy, the real picture is shown up when you look at sanitation coverage. South Asia has sanitation coverage of just 37 per cent; sub-Saharan Africa has 36 per cent.

Why is sanitation a women's concern? Because most men do not face the same problem as do women. The whole world is a toilet for men, to put it crudely. Every open plot of land and every wall can be used, as can be seen anywhere in India. But women have to find a secluded covered area or in the absence of this, wait until it is dark. Is it possible that sanitation continues to be such a low priority because its absence affects women more than men?

Women's health

Lack of sanitation has a direct fallout on the health of poor women, on their dignity, on their ability to work and their ability to participate in public activities. Studies have documented how women choose to eat less and at specific times to avoid having to go to the toilet during daylight hours. In the absence of toilets, they have to use fields and this they can only do after dark or early in the morning. As a result, they are forced to control their intake of food resulting in many forms of under-nutrition and anaemia.

Women are also known to limit the amount of water they drink for the same reasons. In hot countries like ours, this means many more women than men have severe urinary tract infections and kidney problems.

The limited food and water affects their energy levels. Poor women are employed in physical labour and cannot do this for long hours if they do not have either food or water. Necessity forces them to go on working, until they literally drop.

In the city

While the lack of sanitation is substantially more in villages than in cities, the problems that poor women face in cities are no less. In the slums of Mumbai, for instance, the ratio of people to toilets is shockingly inadequate. While men get around this by squatting alongside the railway tracks as in other open spaces and using walls as urinals, women have to wait for the cover of darkness. There are few secluded areas in these slums. In a city like Mumbai, the lights remain on all night and the city literally never sleeps. The price for this is played out in the lives of millions of women who have to face indignity and harassment in order to perform a necessary function every single day of their lives.

For young girls, the problem is even more acute, particularly after they cross puberty. How do you send your daughter to school if you know that while she is there, she cannot go to a toilet? As a result, many women choose to keep their daughters at home. Thus, the best laid schemes to encourage female literacy fail because no one has considered the needs of women when it comes to sanitation.

With Panchayati Raj, women are being encouraged to participate in governance. Thousands of women have stepped outside their homes and are travelling to other villages, to district headquarters and even to State capitals to participate in meetings and discussions. But one problem all face, regardless of the State to which they belong, is the absence of facilities for women in the places they visit. Surveys in Mumbai have revealed that of the public conveniences that exist, the facilities for women are less than a third of what is available for men. And even these are far from adequate.

Politicians like Narendra Modi would not know any of this. Even if they did, they would not care. For if they actually did know, and did care, millions of Indian women, with or without a "burqa", would not be "forced to go the jungles."