Twenty-five-year-old Shahida* is starving. Like many other women in the flood-affected village of Pakhali in Assam’s Nagaon district, she is avoiding rice—the regions’ food staple—for fear of having to relieve herself the next morning.
Unseasonal rains in the month of May have affected lakhs of people in Assam, particularly in the districts of Hojai, Cachar, Darrang, Nagaon, Biswanath, and Dima Hasao. While floodwaters have started receding in many parts of the state, thousands of hectares of land in Nagaon still remain submerged. Villagers, especially women and girls, are struggling to find dry land where they can ease themselves. And even when they do, the lack of clean water forces them to use floodwater to wash themselves. Defecating in the open is not only embarrassing but it also puts women at risk of sexual violence.
At times, the women request one of the better-off homes to allow them to use their washroom; however, this does not always work out. Due to lack of access to toilets and long periods of holding back stool, the women say they are losing the urge to defecate, resulting in constipation.
“I feel so much discomfort that my back pains even more than before. To add to it, I have to walk at least 1.5–2 kilometres to fetch water—be it for household use or to wash ourselves. We prefer to save the water for consumption rather than use it for washing,” says Shahida. The sentiment is echoed by other women.
“It is worse for girls and women on MC (as periods are known among women in this village). We don’t even get to wash the cloth we use during this time. We use it all through the day and then have to throw it away. We cannot afford one-time-use pads,” adds Salma.*
Life for these women has always been tough, but disasters and displacement bring the grim state of basic health and hygiene infrastructure to the forefront.
*Names changed to maintain confidentiality.
Geeta Lama manages the media portfolio for Save the Children in India.
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