Anita Jain on the need for women’s rights movements to carve out their own space

Last month, women’s rights activists in Mumbai took up a protest along the lines of the “Occupy Men’s Toilets” campaign in China, and demanded more public toilets for women. Last year it was headline news that India has more temples than toilets, so the need is clearly not a new one. In addition to diseases spread by open defecation, women, particularly in rural areas, often place themselves at risk by venturing out to the fields or jungles to defecate before dawn or after dusk. Last year, a woman from Madhya Pradesh was lauded for refusing to stay in her husband’s house until they constructed a toilet. This courageous act flagged up a “No Toilet, No Bride” movement in parts of India, also sometimes referred to as “No Loo, No I Do.”

At Women Deliver 2013, I felt a resonance when Cecile Richards spoke of American laws in the 1900s which excluded women from suffrage, grouping them with “idiots and felons,” and the ensuing movement to claim their right to vote. Women have historically had to fight for equity. The issue may vary: from the right to drive, to enter a soccer stadium, to act in films, or to wear or not wear a burqa. Proclaiming intolerance to this discrimination, Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy affirmed strongly “to not glorify a culture that injures me, and injures me in the name of protecting me.” While success may vary by what a woman defines for herself, an enduring campaign has almost always been at the heart of having to carve out and occupy their rightful space. And not just in the public domain, but also in their homes and families.

Without question, there has been progress. Chelsea Clinton shared a personal story of her grandmother living in times when women were not allowed to vote to actually voting for her daughter in the last US elections. Participation of women has increased in different power corridors in America. However it has stagnated to on average around 17% of positions held by women, be it in universities, national and state legislatures, or in the Fortune 500 C-Suite. It is therefore crucial that momentum is maintained towards having women in leadership roles, and fostering how they lead. A collective movement is what will be needed.

Anita Jain is the India editor, BMJ.