Farm protest woes: India’s sanitation issues add to women’s battle

2. Balwinder Kaur (left) with her daughter Jasleen Kaur (right) protesting at the Singhu Border. Picture: Diya Khanna
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Female farmers have been protesting against India's new farm laws for more than 14 months, but the lack of sanitation infrastructure for them is both dangerous and frustrating. Diya Khanna reports.

It is September 27, 2021, and the country is shut down by the All-India farmers’ strike. 

At the Amritsar toll plaza, the women farmers are cooking food for more than 200 protesters.

“They serve everyone but hardly eat anything themselves,” Manbir Sandhu, a social activist, says. 

Amrinder Kaur asks a young girl serving food to give her just a quarter of a serving. “I can’t eat much. One sip of water per hour is sufficient. I’ll have to use the toilet otherwise. It’s better to starve than to visit the stinking toilets.”

Kaur, 42, is one of the thousands of farming women taking part in nationwide protests asking the government to repeal new farm laws that farmers say will leave them extremely vulnerable. The unavailability of toilets makes their protest even more difficult. 

To the government, the sanitation problems the women are facing is invisible – like their role in farming. The unhygienic conditions during the protests underscores the absence of sanitation infrastructure for women in India.

Lack of public toilets affects women’s safety

At 4.30 pm, Traveen* is sitting on the ground with other female protesters.

“I wasn’t expecting to be interrupted by the natural call at this time of the day.” She picks her brass pot and fills it with water. 

Avoiding meeting the eyes of the men around her, she walks to a field, which is a mile away. She then walks another mile into the field, so none of her acquaintances can see her. 

Traveen, 60, has been farming for 40 years. 

“It’s embarrassing. Derogatory sometimes,” she says. “But the nearest petrol pump where I can find a toilet is four miles from here,” she says. 

“I am not alone. I find many women farmers of my age there.”

Farm protest woes: India's sanitation issues add to women's battle
A female protester cooking food for other protesters. Picture: Diya Khanna

When they have to go into the fields, the female farmers of reproductive age are afraid of being attacked.

It is not safe for women to travel alone in the country. According to the 2020 report of the National Crime Record Bureau of India, 28,046 rape cases were registered in the country, with not even 5 per cent of the accused punished. 

Farmer Harjinder*, 30, finds going alone to the fields “risky”.

You never know who’s hiding and waiting there for you.

“We look for isolated spots. But we plan it in groups in the early mornings.”

Manbir Sandhu, president of the Amritsar wing of the National Student Union of India, says he was “bewildered” at the sight of the women gathering in the early morning. 

“My sleep was broken by the slow murmurings,” he says. “I looked outside my camp … around 10 women gathered together, with their water bottles and steel glass vases and walked to someplace at four in the morning.

“When I further enquired the few elder male acquaintances, they were hesitant initially, but I was later informed that women wake up early before any man wakes up.” 

He says that women go to defecate in the fields in the early morning in “the absence of the stalking men”. 

Farm laws and inadequate sanitation endanger women

Sandhu questions the elimination of government-regulated market negotiators under the new farm laws, in the context of women’s safety.

“In India, do you expect women to travel alone to the markets? You want women to directly deal with the traders, but will you ensure immediate justice if any of the women are molested or harassed during these dealings?” he says. 

Farm protest woes: India's sanitation issues add to women's battle
Farmers protesting for the repeal of the farm laws. Picture: Diya Khanna

He says that women lack access to the judicial system, and now the government is shifting them from “local courts to the never-ending judicial structure”.

“Would they farm for their living or spend years getting the disputes settled?” he asks. “This all needs travelling.” He wonders if they will be provided fewer “disease-spreading washrooms” during their travel.

Sandhu says such laws are not appropriate for “developing countries like India”.

“We aren’t the USA or Canada. Before privatising the agricultural market, you need to ensure the infrastructure that is basic to taking such a big step,” he says.

“Around 40 farmer unions in the country are protesting. They are aware of their circumstances … but the government is only looking for their profit.”

Widespread lack of access to sanitation

The report by WaterAid, Out of Order: The State of the World’s Toilets 2017, reports that India has the highest number of people (732 million) who have no access to toilets, 355 million of them women.

Ravinder Kaur*, 33, a female farmer, is accustomed to defecating in the open as there is no toilet at her home.

“We have fixed times to urinate and defecate. The ladies of our area group together at those times,” she says. “That’s not a big problem, we are used to it in our villages as well. We have our biological clocks alarming accordingly.”

The absence of good public washrooms has forced women to schedule their time to urinate and defecate and alter their food and water intake. 

Freelance social psychologist Aakshi Khurana says the behaviour of the women is understandable.

“The women in these protests eat or drink in a certain way and limited quantities that they don’t have an immediate impulse to pee,” she says.

“Unhealthy and ill women are especially vulnerable under such circumstances.”

Khurana says women have social expectations to “maintain modesty and shame” in front of men.

“Men … can urinate anywhere they want, even near the toll plazas,” she says. “But women do think. Unfortunately, they can’t have a clean bathroom for their private needs as well.”

Many public toilets unusable

By 2019, Google maps had started showing 57,000 public toilets in over 2300 cities across the country. But in a survey of public toilets in Delhi, conducted by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in November 2020, 55 per cent of the toilets were unusable or extremely dirty.

If the condition is not good in the capital of the country, it can’t be better in the smaller cities.

Sandhu criticises the government’s management of public toilets. “<o one takes responsibility” for cleaning them, he says.

“Just look at their condition. You will vomit.”

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Although public toilets exist, they are cleaned “only once a day”. The toilets are not flushed and there is urine on the seats and the floor. The smell is unbearable. 

Farmer Joban Kaur*, 29, says she resists going to “sickening public toilets” during the protests.

“After the first user leaves, for the next users, urinating requires tolerance and courage,” she says.

Additional struggle for menstruaters

Balwinder Kaur, 45, faces additional problems when she is menstruating.

“I have heard menstrual blood is polluted with toxins,” she says. “I don’t even touch sacred plants during my periods. How can I ruin the soil of the crops that we worship?” 

She is a teacher and a farmer’s wife. Her husband doesn’t permit her to go to fields to defecate.

“And the public toilets are yuck. So, we had to stay in a hotel because I menstruate,” she says.

Gazalpreet Kaur, 20, a social activist and member of the National Student Union of India, says that “only a few well-to-do” farmer families can afford hotels.

“The cheapest of the rooms would cost around Rupees 200 per night at least. What about those protesting for months and earning barely Rupees 6000 per month?”

Psychologist Karman Kaur Miglani, who is a social activist and member of the Punjab Club NGO, has been helping female protesters.

“Male protesters have been realising the problems menstruating women are facing. A few of them have even constructed portable washrooms using wood, plastic and disposable toilet seats.”

“They are not perfect but much better than what the government has given them.”

Menstrual hygiene in India – still a dream

Miglani’s team has been distributing free sanitary napkins to the protesting women.

“Definitely, it’s the duty of the government. They should have provided such necessities. But that’s how a ‘should’ makes difference. They ‘would’ have if they considered the citizens’ breathing lives.”

According to Chetna Soni, a spokesperson for leading sanitary pad company Whisper, out of 400 million women in India, fewer than 20 per cent use sanitary pads. The rest use old rags, husk, ash, leaves, mud and soil and other life-threatening materials.

Miglani says many women are reluctant to use sanitary napkins.

“We try our best,” she says. “But many women from villages don’t even know what sanitary pads are.” 

“For us, it’s a necessity. But for them, it’s not even a luxury.”

Ravinder, a farm worker who earns meagre wages, has never used a sanitary pad.

“I am better off using cloth,” she says. “I don’t know where to dispose of the pads.” She “can’t see any dumpsters” on the road.

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“I can’t dispose the plastic in fields. It’s a little inconvenient to use cloth but that’s better than destroying the fields from where we earn. Women in my village don’t even use cloth. They use ash.” 

Ravinder has seen the menstruating village women sleeping “above the rags in verandahs (small balconies)” of the house. “Because women don’t want to stain the bed sheet, they don’t sleep on the bed.”

Miglani says that government should place dumpsters near the toll plazas.

“Think of the environment, if not us,” she says.

“If the government had spent less money on elections and more money on creating awareness and distributing free sanitary napkins and dumpsters among rural women, the condition of menstruating women would have been far better.” 

Khurana says menstruation issues affect the number of women who can attend the protests. Most menstruaters are unable to “stand for their rights”, she says.

“It’s visible that most of the women participating are above 50 years,” she says.

“Mostly children or distant relatives are taking care of the farms back home. But when menstruating, young ladies are the non-paid in charge of the farms.

“Just link this with what you see. It’s obvious for women to forgo career aspirations and stay at home.

In a society where a red mark on your dress becomes a blot on your personality, women won’t go in public without the cheap availability of the shielding pads.

A 2014 report titled Spot On! by the NGO Dasra found that nearly 23 million girls dropped out of school annually because of a lack of a lack of access to menstrual hygiene management facilities, including the unavailability of sanitary napkins and understanding of menstruation.

Gazalpreet is critical of the government’s approach to sanitary pads.

“Parents don’t send their menstruating daughters to school,” she says. “It’s not comfortable walking with leaking cloth or rag.” 

“Obviously the costs are prohibitive. But the government is spending hundreds of millions on constructing statues, can’t they spend on women’s health?”

Finding privacy for bathing

Finding a way to bathe is also an issue for protesters, Miglani says.

“Men can bath under the open sky. The culture doesn’t demand men to hide their skin,” Miglani says. “But that’s not the case with women.”

She says cultured women in Indian society are expected to “cover their bodies in all circumstances”.

“So, the first option the ladies have is to not bathe, and that’s more unhygienic and worse than anything.”

Since women are staying at these protests for months, they have to find a way to wash themselves.

“A set of women went to a secluded place. They had tarpaulin sheets,” Miglani says. “The lady who was going to take bath was encircled by other women. They covered the lady with tarpaulin sheets around her.”

She says that women bathe in a “canvas bathroom”. 

“They would bath in turns. And if the bathing lady was taller than others, the women covering her would stand on their raised toes.” 

“It’s too uncomfortable, you are always afraid if the tarpaulin is blown by air or what. But you have no choice.”

Blame game justice  

For the authorities, the women who take part in the protests are responsible for their own vulnerability.

India’s Chief Justice S.A. Bobde said on January 12 this year about the presence of the woman at the farm law protests: “Why are women and elders kept in the protest?”

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Amrinder is critical of the Chief Justice’s stance. “We are not ‘kept’. Stop treating us like objects,” she says. 

She says the women are protesting there of their own free will. “If we are opposing their so-called pro-farmer laws, it’s because they are a disaster to the farming community.”

Amrinder says that they have been protesting since August 2020, yet the government is “blind and deaf” to their needs.

“Yes, we are facing problems in the protests,” she says. “But we are suffering because of this government.

“If they are so concerned for us, why don’t they give necessary facilities which women need for the sake of humanity and forget for while that we are opposing their laws?”

Sandhu commends the women’s endurance in “such derogatory circumstances”.

“Being a man, you wonder how these women are so determined,” he says. “We struggle too. But they are supposedly thrown more pebbles in their path.”

Amrinder refuses to step back from the protests. She says that she is “fighting for rights”.

“If we return today, it will be our submission to their dictatorship.

I hope someday, the government recognises basic needs of the women, women who are their citizens, citizens who are humans.

She prepares her bed for sleep.

“I have to wake up early. I can’t miss the precious time to lighten my stomach.”

* Names changed
Note: Some the interviews were translated by the author from Hindi and Punjabi.

What the farmers say the new Farm Bills mean for them

The new Farm Bills, which deregulate agricultural markets, were assented by the President on September 27, 2020. 

Provision: It extends the trade areas of farmers’ produce from the government-regulated Agricultural Produce Market Committee (AMPC) –  mandis – to “any place of production, collection, and aggregation”.

Opposition: 1) The constitution considers agriculture and markets as state subjects. This means the acts by the central government are against India’s democratic federal government system and infringe on the functions of the state.

2) The mandis operated under the APMC law will be shut down, and then no one will buy farmers’ produce at the minimum support price – a safety net that assures minimum price to farmers when they sell their crops – and so the farmers will be obliged to sell the crops to corporate companies at a lesser price.

Provision: It prohibits the state governments from levying any market fee, or cess (tax levied by the government in addition to the current tax) on the trade of farmers’ produce conducted in an “outside trade area”.

Opposition: This will add to the state government’s revenue loss, which will affect their ability to spend on local infrastructure.

Provision: It provides a national framework for farmers to enter prearranged and direct contracts with the buyers. 

Opposition: Farmers will be unprotected from fraud due to the entry of unlicensed and unregistered buyers.

Provision: It allows the regulation of the price of the food commodities only in “extraordinary circumstances” and it removes stockpiling limits on agricultural produce except under “extraordinary circumstances”.

Opposition: The exporters, processers and traders might stock the production at lower prices and release only when the prices rise, and states would have no control over the supply of stock.