June 09, 2008

We treat women far too poorly

A friend from work loaned me Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta, which I started reading this morning and haven't been able to put down. This passage, about the Jogeshwari slums, struck me as being particularly relevant to the sorts of things I've been thinking about lately (about which, perhaps, more later):

I couldn't use the public toilets. I tried, once. There were two rows of of toilets. Each one of them had masses of shit, overflowing out of the toilets and spread liberally all around the cubicle. Fore the next few hours that image and that stench stayed with me, when I ate, when I drank. It''s not merely an esthetic discomfort; typhoid runs rampant through the slum and spreads through oral -- fecal contact. ...

There are two million people without access to latrines in Bombay. You can see them every morning along the train tracks, trudging with a tumbler of water, looking for a vacant place to squat. It is a terrible thing, a degrading thing, for a woman to be forced to look every morning for a little privacy to go to the toilet or to clean herself while she's menstruating. No city this rich should make its women suffer this way. The women of this slum were luckier. They had toilets built by the municipality, but they were full, and the municipality wasn't doing anything about unblocking them. ...

Mehta goes on to describe how a committee of Jogeshwari women pressed for cleaner toilets, then better water, rights for "divorced-divorced-divorced" Muslim women, and more. Mehta writes,

If there is hope for Bombay, it is in this group of slum women, all illiterate, and others like them. Issues of infrastructure are not abstract problems for them. Much more than the men, the women have to deal with such issues firsthand. If you want to make sure that the money you send to a poor place will be spent properly, give it to the women who live there.

I'm not sure I entirely agree with that conclusion or the evidence used to support it: certainly, women have put up with far shabbier infrastructures for centuries and accepted it as entirely normal -- indeed, would rebel against something more sophisticated. Mehta also writes,

I asked one of the Jegeshwari women if she wouldn't rather live in a decent apartment than the slum she lived in now, with the open gutter outside and the absence of indoor plumbing. Yes, there was a building planned nearby to resettle the slum dwellers. But people from her neighborhood wouldn't move there. "There's too much aloneness. A person can die behind closed doors of a flat and no one will know. Here," she observed with satisfaction, "there are a lot of people."

Not exactly evidence of a feminine demand for better infrastructure...

Posted by Ideofact at June 9, 2008 11:47 PM