LUCKNOW, India (AP) — The two teenage girl cousins had walked out together at night, as they did every night, into the wild bamboo fields 10 or 15 minutes from their mud-and-straw huts to relieve themselves. Like millions of families across India, they had no toilet at home.
In the dark, they were attacked, gang-raped and killed. The assailants then hung their bodies from a mango tree in their village.
Beyond highlighting the rampant sexual violence in India, last week's horrific crime is drawing attention to a glaring problem across the country that threatens women's safety: the lack of toilets.
U.N. figures show of India's 1.2 billion people, 665 million — mostly those in the countryside — don't have access to a private toilet or latrine, something taken for granted in developed nations. Some villages have public bathrooms, but many women avoid using them because they are usually in a state of disrepair and because men often hang around and harass the women.
"Around 65 percent of the rural population in India defecates in the open and women and girls are expected to go out at night. This does not only threaten their dignity, but their safety as well," UNICEF representative Louis-Georges Arsenault said in a statement.
Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement — a group that helps build low-cost toilets — estimates the country needs about 120 million more latrines. Since the attack, his group has decided to construct toilets in 108 houses in the girls' village of Katra Sadatganj in the northern, densely populated state of Uttar Pradesh.
Indian women aren't alone in their vulnerability as they use either unhygienic public latrines or visit the fields to relieve themselves. From villages in Nepal to the urban slums of Cape Town, South Africa, women say that lack of safe access to toilets often puts them at risk of sexual violence and harassment.
The 14- and 15-year-old cousins were dalits, at the bottom of Hinduism's caste hierarchy, making them even more vulnerable to attacks from men, particularly of higher castes.
They did not go out alone, but there were just two of them. Women generally gather in groups to go to the fields to relieve themselves. To avoid embarrassment they usually go at dawn and late at night. Male family members usually don't go with the women since modesty is a major consideration.
After the girls had left, an uncle, Baburam, went out to make sure the cows hadn't trampled his patch of mint, The Indian Express newspaper reported. He heard some screams and shone his flashlight toward four men dragging the girls away across the fields, he told the newspaper. They threatened him with a gun.
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