In 2010, the United Nations (UN) declared that access to water and sanitation are human rights, but billions of people around the world are a long way from realising these rights. In a recent study published by Human Rights Watch, it is estimated that 2.6 billion people live without proper sanitation. Over 1.1 billion people have no sanitation facilities at all and practise open defecation, that is, defecating or urinating in fields, on public roads, behind bushes, plastic bags, and ditches or along railway tracks.Over 500 million women across the globe lack access to sanitation facilities. That means that 13 per cent of the worlds female population are unable to use a toilet or manage menstrual hygiene. For these women, the risk of sexual assault is 40 per cent higher than for women with access to sanitation facilities. In India, this risk is as high as 50 per cent. In 2014, two adolescent girls were sexually assaulted in rural northwest India, when they were out in the evening to defecate in an open field.In a recent study in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies on Womens Experiences of Defecating in the Open, one respondent said, Some men would hide and watch us defecating and then talk about it. This often put my husband to shame and even led to quarrels, with my husband scolding me for not remaining hidden.Government InterventionPutting an end to open defecation is vital to gravitate towards gender equality. According to Amnesty International, millions of women and girls have to walk more than 300 metres from their homes to use available toilets. The unavailability or unfortunate state of toilets also put women at a major risk of contracting serious diseases.In a recent interview with Her Circle, Naina Lal Kidwai, chair, India Sanitation Coalition and FICCI Water Mission said that the absence of empowerment of women in India, especially if they belong to the lower castes, worsens the problems they face due to the lack of access to water, toilets and hygiene education. Sanitation continues to be fundamental to our agenda and it is supported by Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 (SBM). With the Covid-19 pandemic, authorities have recognised that by addressing sanitation and water issues, we improve hygiene, health, gender, and livelihoods. Our main aim is to find a permanent solution for societal behaviour change, addressing women and their personal hygiene needs, she said.A significant progress has been made under the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), launched in October 2014, towards universal sanitation coverage. The second phase of SBM focuses on Open Defecation Free Plus (ODF+) protocol to ensure that no one is left behind when it comes to safe sanitation. Sulabh Sanitation Movement has built 11 lakh household toilets and 7,500 community toilet blocks across India with only women toilets making up for 30 per cent and made 640 towns scavenging-free. The no toilet, no bride program that began in Haryana was useful to disseminate the message that sanitation is important for women to preserve their dignity and honour. Private sanitation coverage in households with men looking for marriage increased by 21 per cent in Haryana, which has one of the worst sex ratios in the country. The importance of building toilets was spread through billboards, posters and radio advertisements using phrases such as No Toilet, No Bride and No Loo, No I do.Women-friendly public toilets can help to achieve the objectives under SBM 2 and ensure access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for all. The women-friendly public toilets should be built to keep the safety and privacy of the women. Other aspects like accessibility, menstrual hygiene management, good maintenance with an uninterrupted water supply and female caretakers can make public toilets women-friendly, said Kidwai.Women At The Centre-Stage In Water And SanitationOutdated gender roles make women dependent and limits their role in undertaking important economic decisions like building toilets or sanitation facilities inside their home. Several research studies have also shown that girls drop out of schools due to inadequate sanitary facilities being provided especially during their menstruation periods. But in recent years, significant work has been done to alter some of these norms and beliefs. In Rajasthan girls who have dropped out of school because of the lack of facilities for dealing with their periods are becoming rani mistri, toilet-builders, in their communities. In Odisha, women and transgender Self-Help Groups (SHGs) have been engaged in the operation and maintenance of treatment facilities in eight cities; in Jharkhand, trained women masons built over 15 lakh toilets in one year.In her fight for clean water and sanitation, Kidwai has come across several women coming to the forefront to take charge of addressing their own needs. Realising this key role of women in driving the change in sanitation landscape of India, public policy interventions like the Total Sanitation Campaign and Swachh Bharath Mission are heavily concentrated towards women. Women, be it in urban or rural societies, are pushing for better reforms for their overall wellbeing either through the help of support groups or through community-led efforts.While much progress has been made; the task is now to ensure that everyone has access to safe toilets including girls and women from marginalised sections.