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Ketaki Desai Headshot

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Modi on the Issue of Women's Safety in India

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Dear Prime Minister Modi,

Heartiest congratulations on your recent election and historic win; a phenomenon that reaffirmed our democratic beliefs! Obviously, several things in India need to change; and if there is one person who has the courage, dedication and vision to put our country on the path to greatness, my hope is that that person is you. The entire country seems to be galvanized by the speed at which you seem to want to turn around age old practices of sycophancy and corruption, and create an bustling economy with your ten-point agenda that focuses on education, health, water, transparent governance, energy and infrastructure.

However, we were disappointed when we noticed nothing about women's safety issues -- unless you count health and education as closely related issues. In light of the recent atrocities committed on women and girls, shouldn't this issue be of the utmost concern to our government? Not only does this make our country unsafe for almost half it's existing population, but it also puts India in a very bad light internationally. That we are refusing to tackle the issue with a clear strategy, eliminating the problems one step at a time, and giving our daughters a chance for a secure future, is disappointing.

I understand that the lack of women's safety is not just one problem, it is the culmination of years of inequality. It is the problem of not having enough toilets for women to do their daily business with dignity; the problem of dealing with policemen who treat issues of sexual harassment with callousness; the problem that society does not view non-rape sexual offense, like eve-teasing, with the seriousness that it should; the problem of moral police who consider dressing up as provocative; the problem that our boys are being taught that women are not equal; the problem of a sexually repressed society; the list of problems does seem endless.

So here is a suggestion. Let's start with the first tangible issue that has the probability of being tackled in your first term -- the problem of not enough toilets. Since there are purportedly more cellphones than toilets in our country, and over 600 million people practice open defecation, this would seem like a good place to start. And since over 65 percent of those people live in rural India, I would like to propose this ten-step strategy to address that issue:

  1. Pick a list of 1000 villages from the 3961 that have a population greater than 10,000 people or more to begin with. It would be impractical to implement such a program in all the 5.94 lakh villages at one go, so let us start with the those with the highest population for the biggest impact.
  2. Use technology and crowdsourcing to pinpoint the locations where toilets are needed in those villages -- let the women from those villages inform you about the number of women per toilet by sending a free text message. Get major cell-phone carriers to participate in the movement.
  3. Create a task force that will monitor these text messages, and deploy people to the location where more than 10 women are using a toilet. These people can assess the number of toilets required and simultaneously educate women on personal hygiene and clean sanitation.
  4. Put out a world-wide RFP for building these toilets with locally-available and eco-friendly materials. The selected company can manage the building of these toilets, but should be required to employ and train people from the village where it is being built.
  5. It is important that the people of the village feel ownership of these structures, hence it would help if they are able to pool a minimum one-time payment that would allow to pay for the employment of the villagers who will build the toilets.
  6. Request large multi-national conglomerates to jump on board, and offer a percentage of profit for their products that are being consumed in our country. Allow this money to fund the building of the toilets. This will enable every citizen of the country to contribute to the solution.
  7. Once the toilets are built, it is pertinent that they be used only by those families they were built for, and not for public use. Previous studies have shown that unless toilets are constantly maintained, they tend to fall into disrepair. However, if these toilets are entrusted to certain families, they might hold a better chance for a longer life.
  8. Build a sustainable model whereby the trained villagers can actually travel to other villages, and train locals to build more toilets. Use the one-payment from the villagers to pay the employed, and use the money from the multi-national funds for building material and supplies.
  9. Build a scalable model whereby the knowledge from a few villagers can permeate across the country; providing employment and increasing awareness about sanitation at the same time.
  10. Finally, use innovative and lost-cost technologies, including water-less technologies, for better waste management. Examples can be taken from countries like Indonesia and Vietnam that use models of community involvement, composting waste, eco-sanitation, etc.

While this might not be the only or even the ideal solution, I believe it is the start of a more solution-focused discussion to our problems. It is not the time to sit in our chairs and raise fingers at what is wrong in India, it is time to take action. If not with actual labor, then with diligently researched strategies. Our country is known for its brilliant minds, the IITs and IIMs; why not engage their talent by putting forth competitions that are aimed at designing solutions to other women-related issues? Meanwhile, many of us will be more than willing to help if the situation so demands, all you have to do is ask.

Sincerely,
An Indian