Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Ends and means, rape and sanitation: setting priorities

 **Potential trigger warning. 

Public health is a wonderful field full of motivated and energetic people with a real drive to do good in the world. There is ostensibly something elegantly uncontroversial about many of the goals of global health: you’re preventing people from dying from preventable or curable diseases. You’re saving lives. While other programs are sticky with politics and controversy, health programs keep people alive, and that is good.
            This is the kind of narrative that has attracted many people (myself included) to the field of public health. In this whole mess of a world, we can at least we can do this—get children a headstart in life by encouraging their mothers to breastfeed, give people clean water, immunize people against diseases. But this kind of thinking has resulted in a tendency to have a end-oriented perspective: the ends justify the means. Preventing children from dying is important and good, and this is an end that justifies its methods.
            This is the sort of thinking that led to some of the brutalities of the smallpox vaccine campaign: lies and manipulations of government officials, doors kicked down in the middle of the night, children held down and forcibly vaccinated. The harsh memories from those days lingers on in these places, and it hinders current vaccination work and collaboration. Yes, we eliminated smallpox, and that is incredible—but what was the cost?

            Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), as I’ve previously blogged, is an approach started by Kumal Kar in Bangladesh. It triggers disgust in a community at open defecation, then and mobilizes community shame in order to motivate individuals to build their own latrines. This approach is ubiquitous around the world, but most particularly in South Asia. Amina Mahbub, an anthropologically-trained health practitioner and researcher, wrote a chapter in the book Shit Matters: the potential of community-led total sanitation. Mahbub’s chapter discusses how CLTS approaches affect women and children in Bangladeshi communities. While she points out that CLTS does not do a good job helping the extremely poor, her review is a mostly positive perspective of the approach.
            I’m not going to go into a line-by-line critique of the whole chapter or discuss the approach overall (I’ve done the latter previously), but this sentence just stopped me short:

“VDC (local government) members…further stated that no bichar (arbitration) would be held if young women and adolescent girls were raped whilst defecating outside” (47).

Let me repeat that: If someone is raped while trying to find a place to defecate, the village counsel is going to ignore it. They are going to ignore rape. Because a young women or girl, who is looking for a place to defecate outside because she probably can’t afford a toilet in her house, deserves to be raped.

I believe in sanitation. I believe in its importance to change lives for the better and its importance in ensuring health. But I do not think there is any justification for measures that rely on the degradation of women. These are older, powerful, male villagers who said this. They are seated in places of privilege. With the government and NGOs looking at them to decrease open defecation, they are strongly motivated to decrease OD in order to maintain or increase their prestige. When they say they will not arbitrate rape cases, they are telling young women that their bodies, their rights, do not matter as much as their status. They are telling men that it's open season on any young woman you see after dark, because you can always say they were out defecating.
The next sentence is, “Therefore the extreme poor were compelled to install toilets.” How sad, really. Instead of wanting to install toilets, instead of being worked with to improve their sanitation situation, they are threatened—the threat of the awfulness of rape or by the loss of honor that would come with having a female in the household raped.
Most approaches—this one included—are multipronged, so it’s difficult to point out what particular aspect of any approach was effective. So I cannot argue with this approach on an effectiveness level; we cannot say, Well, at least it’s effective or This wasn’t even effective.
But effectiveness isn’t the point. While yes, open defecation put the whole community at risk, does that really excuse these kinds of threats against individuals? Furthermore, what do you think people will remember next time a development group wants their cooperation?
The struggle for better health for all (which is really what we’re in this for) is a long, long struggle. Impatience leads to collateral damage. ‘Ends justifies the means’ behavior leads to other problems in other areas down the line. In trying to save people, let’s not make their lives worse.


  1. This is crazy! I can"t imagine what link there could possibly be between "it's not OK to poop out there" and "rape is now fine, call it a learning opportunity".

  2. This is insane.
    It feels to me like sort of a false economy of resources. Saying it is more important to solve the open defecation probleem than it is to address the problems of people being raped. I mean, I suppose the one is somewhat more common than the other (though I am sure you can tell me if I am wrong). But is is not as though the solution to the one is to ignore the other. Nor that by eliminating open defecation, the problem of rape will just go away.
    People tend to like simple and easy solutions. Ignoring the problem is often the easiest and simplest solution. Or so it seems to me.