On the blog

Monday, 17 November 2014

How women are leading the charge in India’s quiet revolution

Women are leading the charge in the big push for sanitation in rural India – and not for the reasons you might expect. The threat of attack is prompting women to challenge centuries-old tradition.

The women lurk in the shadows, peeping out from behind their scarves, as we weave in and out of mud houses in remote villages in north-east India.

They are elusive, evasive even – until we ask them about the latrines we’ve come to photograph.

At the mere mention of toilets, they step forward and are keen to talk. Because here it is women who benefit most from having a latrine – and in ways you might not expect. It is women who are leading the charge in the quiet revolution unfolding in Bihar state.

Ask them why they want toilets and the answer is always the same.

‘I built a toilet for my daughter and daughter-in-law, and now they are safe,’ says Nirmala Devi, who lives in Parsauni Baij. This mother of four has had to wait for a toilet till she was ‘over 60’.

Nirmala and husband Bishwanath in Parsauni Baij
Women’s safety is a key driver behind the big push for sanitation in these villages, led by Toilet Twinning partner Discipleship Centre.

As in most poor, rural areas in India, open defecation is still the norm. But while men happily squat by the roadside in the early morning sun, culture dictates that women have to rise before dawn or wait until dark to relieve themselves. They must not be seen.

‘It’s very difficult for girls to go outside in the darkness and they’re worried about snake bites and other problems,’ says Nirmala.

That phrase, ‘other problems’, crops up often. It’s a euphemism hinting at a very real threat. Attacks on women are far from uncommon.

Widespread illiteracy and the lack of electricity mean that women here did not hear reports of two teenage girls being raped and hanged in Uttar Pradesh in May – even though the story sparked international outrage. The girls were attacked as they went out in the dark to relieve themselves. But women here in Sheohar district were already well aware of the risks.

Close by, in Dumri village, Ranju Sharma is equally enthusiastic about her latrine. Hers is a very modest affair with no roof as yet – but it’s a statement of faith that life can get better.

Her husband is a mechanic who works away for much of time, so Ranju is often left alone to bring up their two lively boys. Installing a latrine last year ended their daily trek into the bushes behind their home.

‘When I had to go outside, I used to be frightened,’ says Ranju. ‘In the night, there are snakes and lots of other problems. My children didn’t want to go outside either: they'd get dirty and have diarrhoea… but not now.’

Ranju and sons, beside their latrine in Dumri
Focusing on women is key to Discipleship Centre’s strategy. It’s a bold move in these conservative, rural areas which are traditionally beyond the reach of state-run programmes.

Discipleship Centre works with different grassroots organisations and many of the ‘community mobilisers’ these groups employ are women. It’s their job to talk to people about the importance of proper sanitation and encourage them to have a toilet.

Rani is one of these mobilisers. She lives in Purnahiya, the area where she works, so people know her and listen to what she has to say.

Away from male company, she speaks softly about the problems women face without a proper toilet.
‘Even if a woman has diarrhoea, she has to wait [until dark],’ says Rani. ‘She does not eat and she keeps to herself all day and has to wait until the evening.

‘This makes her sick and causes problems like gas. It can also cause lack of appetite, which is stress-induced. Sometimes, in an emergency, she might dig a small hole and go in secret.’

Rani, community mobiliser for Purnahiya
Most women want a toilet, Rani says, but most families here cannot afford one. Ranju’s toilet cost 9,000 Rupees (about £90), and she saved £1 a month through a local savings group to help pay for it.

As part of the government’s big push to end open defecation, it is offering grants to help families install a toilet, but they have to apply for funding retrospectively, with no guarantee their application will be successful. Many can’t afford to take that risk.

Discipleship Centre’s approach encourages families to contribute finance and labour towards their own toilet. This builds ‘ownership’, which in turn promotes the all-important ‘behaviour change’. There have been many large-scale latrine-building programme in India before but many fail, as people abandon latrines and return to open defecation.

Education is another key tool that Discipleship Centre and its local partners are using to change attitudes for good. And in areas where there is widespread illiteracy, this often means street theatre – with an interesting twist.

One drama sketch they use is a comedy, with a nod to an earlier government campaign, No Toilet, No Bride. Its message is clear: having a toilet makes men more attractive to women.

In another, more sombre sketch, a community group have a lively discussion about the pros and cons of toilets. Characters speak energetically about the ‘fresh air and exercise’ that come with open defecation.

Another asks, slowly, how they’d feel if their daughter was attacked. ‘Society is not what it was…’

Encouraging communities to break with centuries-old tradition and install latrines is hard work. But Discipleship Centre’s ever-positive Programme Manager Jay Kumar insists change is possible: ‘We can change the game.’

For Jay’s colleague, Project Officer Dwijendra Mandal, it’s just a question of patience and persistence. ‘When one person in a village has a latrine, everyone wants one,’ says Mandal.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Of long drops and light bulbs

Or the long answer to the short question: ‘Does it cost £60 to build a toilet…?’

It’s a question we hear a lot, especially on our stands at summer festivals.

The short answer is ‘yes’. But the long answer is much more interesting. Got a moment…?

When you stump up your £60 for a toilet twin (thank you), you are not just paying for a latrine slab and a pit: you are in fact lighting the touch paper to a slow-burning revolution. 

The safe latrine on your certificate is in fact the end result of a process that transforms the entire community. It’s a process that takes time but it’s well worth the wait, as our new short film from Nepal explains.

Himalayan foothills. Photo: Ralph Hodgson

Our partner in Nepal could just drive into a village with a 4x4 loaded with materials and experts. They could just build toilets for people and drive off again. But they don’t, for very good reasons.

In fact, they start by bringing villagers together in workshops and encouraging them to join action groups focused on issues that concern the community, such as farming. Gently, they plant the idea that change is possible – and change lies in the community’s hands.

Slowly, sensitively, they encourage communities to allow women to have a say in household decisions, often for the first time. It’s women and children who carry the heaviest burden in terms of collecting water and caring for the family – yet they often have no voice.Then, our partner brings men and women together in small committees to look at water and sanitation. And it’s then, when trust is established and confidence is growing, that they start to talk about the link between health and sanitation…

For many, this is a revelation, a light bulb moment. Many simply have never known why diarrhoea lays them low during the rainy season. They have never understood why their children have fallen ill or died.

Suddenly, they understand. And when that light comes on, they want a latrine. And they want to be the authors who rewrite the community’s future.

So then it’s the family, generally, who build their own latrine. So they have the dignity of providing for themselves – and ownership of what they’ve built.

A family who have understood the need for a latrine and been empowered to build their own are much more likely to use it and look after it. (That’s what sustainability is all about.)

Bishwo, whom you’ll meet in our new short film, is a great example. He had never understood why his mother and daughter had had to be hospitalised in Kathmandu with diarrhoea-related illnesses – until our partner taught him about the link between health and sanitation.

 Bishwo outside his latrine. Photo: Ralph Hodgson
Then, he didn’t hesitate to sell two of his goats to be able to pay for a permanent latrine. He was so proud that he held an open day so his community could come and see for themselves – and even try it out.

Now, the only infection spreading is enthusiasm for latrines. Several neighbours have built their own.

As Bishwo says, ‘This toilet is my guarantee of reaching old age now.’ That’s what your £60 pays for.

We believe strongly that education is the key to ending poverty. When people have knowledge, they can make informed choices about their lives. And bring about change for the long term.

In some places, of course, this approach isn’t possible. So in conflict areas (such as parts of the DRC) or places hit by a natural disaster (such as cyclone-damaged areas of Bangladesh), we have to ‘go operational’.

That’s when our founder charities, Cord and Tearfund, send in people with water and sanitation expertise to dig wells and build latrines. They still run hygiene education workshops for communities where they’re working, to ensure that people understand the need for handwashing and keeping clean. This is sometimes how we have to work to save lives, but we’d rather not start from there.

We believe that working with local organisations, with communities, to educate, equip and empower households to find their own way out of poverty is far better. (In development circles, it’s known as community-led total sanitation.)

It works, it lasts and it’s far more cost-effective.

Which brings us back to the original question… ‘Does it cost £60 to build a toilet?’

In communities hit by disaster or conflict where we ‘go operational’, the cost of providing a latrine is far higher than £60. In places where we work through local organisations, the cost is lower. Overall, the average cost per household for a water and sanitation programme – across the 25 countries where Tearfund and Cord work – is about £60.

So, as you can see, your £60 goes far further than just digging a latrine: that’s just the bit we can show in the photo on your certificate. In fact, your money sparks an amazing chain reaction that is changing entire communities for ever. One light bulb moment, one latrine at a time.

Bishwo's village. Photo: Ralph Hodgson

Monday, 9 June 2014

A love affair with toilets

Toilet Twinning has recently teamed up with London Loo Tours, which now offers the opportunity to twin a toilet and have a private tour. We share an obsession with toilets and a slightly wacky sense of humour. Here, toilet plunger in hand, Rachel Erickson, the Loo Tour Lady, explains her passion for the privy… 

I spend most of my life thinking and talking about toilets.
People often ask me why.
It’s a long story…

When I moved to London in 2011 to study for my MA at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, I never could have imagined the path my career would take. I came partly because I loved London and partly because I saw this as the best place to pursue a theatrical career.

The toilet obsession started very innocently, with a personal mission to avoid the 30p and upwards charges at many public conveniences across the capital.  I started learning where the free ones were, and noticing the difference in price at different spots.

It would have remained an innocent joke had I not decided to become a tour guide. I happened to mention my toilet obsession in a biography and my interviewer responded by saying, ‘And you should definitely do a public toilet tour of London. Definitely.’

Being a curious person, I started to wonder if I could actually pull it off. Despite being a regular user, I hadn’t thought a lot about toilets other than knowing where they were and how much they cost.  I took them for granted.

And so began the long journey down the toilet path… I researched, chatted with providers, and read every book I could get my hands on, and soon found that the topic was a bigger one than I had ever imagined. The tours grew surprisingly quickly, from something I had thought would be a one-off joke to them becoming my main occupation.

I also found out just how important toilets actually are. While paying 30p may be a frustration, I know now that we are among the privileged where toilets are concerned.

One of the highlights of my career has been attending the 2013 World Toilet Summit in Solo, Indonesia. The toilet summit takes place in a different country every year and brings together entrepreneurs, academics, city planners, manufacturers, environmental activists and an odd assortment of others like myself who don’t quite fit a category.

The mission is to explore solutions to the global sanitation crisis that affects approximately 40 per cent of the world’s population. There are still today 2.5 billion people worldwide who lack access to safe sanitation. It is one of the world’s biggest killers, hitting women, children and the elderly the hardest. A lack of toilets can also have severe economic impacts too, leading to a less educated and less productive workforce.

Yet, it doesn’t get talked about.

The reason is largely down to the webs of taboos and inhibitions around bodily functions: toilets are a tough subject to talk about. They aren’t as sexy as water, for example.  A picture of a politician turning on a new water pump is more attractive than using a new toilet (not to mention the potential for puns!)

The driving force behind the Toilet Summit is Jack Sim, also known at Mr Toilet, who founded the World Toilet Organization in 2001. He said something during the conference that has stuck with me ever since:

‘If you can laugh at yourself, you can get others to laugh at you. And if you can get them to laugh, then you can get them to listen.’

This is where I hope that my tours can, in some small way, bridge the gap between humour and action. They remain fairly light-hearted, with history, gossip and a small smattering of bad puns. But it is also a chance for me to provoke people to dive a bit deeper, and to plant seeds. As I develop Loo Tours, my mission is to connect with organisations working in sanitation so that some of those seeds can grow.

At heart, I think we are all closet toilet enthusiasts. Everyone has a story, and the most rewarding days of the tour are the ones where 15 people who were total strangers at the start spend an hour afterwards in the pub talking about the subject.

If we can harness this secret enthusiasm, then we will be well on the path to positive change!

Toilet Twinning is a brilliant initiative, and I am very pleased that they have agreed to partner with me on tours. Twinning a toilet is a simple and fun way, not only to support education around safe sanitation, but also to spread the word about your contribution and perhaps encourage others to do the same. 

Loo Tours is currently offering the opportunity to twin your toilet and get a private tour (http://lootours.com/home/tours-for-a-cause/toilet-twinning.html)

Twitter: @londonlootours
Facebook: LondonLooTours
Blog: Doingyourbusiness.blogspot.co.uk

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

To the ends of the earth...

Toilet Twinning's CEO Lorraine Kingsley travels to the top of the world (almost) to meet a man whose loo has changed his entire village.

We negotiate six river-bed crossings, countless potholes and a gazillion hairpin bends during the four-hour drive from Kathmandu… then suddenly the village of Talakhu swings into view.

Perched among the sweeping foothills of the Himalayas, it looks out on lush lime-green terraces of wheat, maize and rice snaking up the steep hillsides.

To the ends of the earth: the Himalayan foothills. Photo: Ralph Hodgson

It’s getting late so we retire to our overnight accommodation, which is a bed in a corrugated iron lean-to attached to the side of a home. The shower is cold water in a bucket, in a communal area outdoors.

Early the next morning, after a breakfast of sweet tea and omelette, we set off across more river beds and potholes to reach a simple homestead about an hour away.

Here, a grandfather sits on a rattan mat on his terracotta-coloured verandah, with his three-year-old grandson on his knee. The little boy laughs at his grandfather’s whispers.

Kancha, who’s 52, knows why we have come. He points proudly to his concrete latrine: the first one to be built in the village.

Like his neighbours, he learnt about the link between sanitation and health when Toilet Twinning's partner started working in Risthabot three years ago.

Kancha is now a member of an association that has brought clean drinking water to the village and ended the daily trek to the polluted stream for water. Reaping the benefits of good health, he and his wife, Shaili, work side by side on their land, harvesting wheat and maize, and tending to the cauliflowers, cabbages, onions and garlic in their vegetable garden.

Kancha with his wife, Shaili, and their grandson. Photo: Ralph Hodgson

Their life seems appealingly simple, even successful. But there’s a sobering back story.

Kancha starts to tell us about the two children he lost. He believes they’d still be alive today if he’d learnt 20 years ago about the link between open defecation and diarrhoeal diseases. 

And then it hits you. Kancha is among the millions of parents who experience the terrible reality of that stark sanitation statistic: every minute, three children under the age of five die from diarrhoea-related diseases.

‘We used to use the corner of our land or the nearby stream for defecation,’ he says. ‘Before, there were flies all around and my family were sick all the time.

‘Our five-year-old daughter died of dysentery. And then, in the same year, we lost our three-year-old son after he had diarrhoea for a week. We didn’t know about health and sanitation at that time.

‘But [Toilet Twinning's partner] taught us about the importance of building a toilet. Since then, we can go two or three months, or even six months, without a single instance of diarrhoea.’

Negotiating rivers and potholes to reach Kancha. Photo: Ralph Hodgson

Kancha built his toilet two years ago, for a cost of 52,000 rupees (about £320), thanks to a loan from his relatives. He carried all the stones and dug the pit himself – to keep costs down – but still needed the loan to pay for pipes, roofing and cement, and for a local labourer to help him build the walls.

Inspired, 11 other households in the village have followed suit and built their own latrine. Gradually, the health of the whole village is improving.

The benefits they are enjoying now only underline the price they used to pay for poor sanitation.

Before, Kancha and Shaili were so often sick that their land would lie fallow. All their money went on medicines and healthcare. On two occasions, they were only able to harvest half their crops, because they were too ill to get out of bed. They had to take out loans to buy food – loans that took two or three years to repay.

The stunning backdrop to Kancha's life story. Photo: Ralph Hodgson
There was fallout for the three elder children’s education too; none went to secondary school. ‘Every month, my children would miss at least a week of school,’ says Kancha. One of his grown-up sons lives at home and helps with the farming; his two oldest children work in the city as taxi drivers.

But Kancha’s youngest son, who’s 18, and his only daughter, who’s 16, are still at school – in year 12 and year ten respectively. He dreams big for these two. He hopes that improving heath will bring better job opportunities, and the chance to break free of the poverty that has dogged the family for generations.

‘I think it is possible for my children to have a prosperous and happy life, as they know how to keep their environment clean and healthy,’ says Kancha. ‘With this knowledge, I do not think they will have to endure the difficulties that Shaili and I have encountered.’

Friday, 21 March 2014

A thing or two they did for us

‘A mighty army pounding its way across Europe, a relentless and brutal pursuit of power, the creation of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen.’

This is how the Roman advance is described on the website of our friends at The Vindolanda Trust  in Northumberland, who have just twinned their latrines, ancient and modern, to mark World Water Day (22 March).

Vindolanda: Sit on the loo, chat, compare spongia, as you do

Setting aside the brutality and focusing on the more positive aspects of ‘what the Romans did for us’, decent sanitation has to be up there on the list.

As Dr Andrew Birley, Director of Excavations at The Vindolanda Trust, explained, ‘Two thousand years ago, at the fort and town of Vindolanda, on the very edge of the Roman Empire, you could go to the loo in safety and with the confidence of using a well-built, engineered, clean and safe toilet no matter who you were.  This is one of the most important legacies the Romans left behind in Britain, and a foundation of their great civilisation.’

But recently the UK press has been full of stories of public toilet closures, public toilets being sold off to private developers, public toilets being converted into houses … you get the picture.  It’s the fallout from our current financial position, as councils seek to cut budgets.  It’s easier to find a public loo in China than it is in Britain, notwithstanding the (patchy) help from commendable community toilet schemes.

This homegrown situation pales into insignificance, however, beside the scandal that there are STILL 2.5 billion people in the world without access to any decent loo, whether public or private.  

‘The ancient Romans would have been appalled’ Dr Birley said,  and what’s more, he adds, they would have wanted to ‘do something about it’.

That’s why The Vindolanda Trust have grabbed the opportunity to make a difference, and twinned their toilets to help flush away poverty overseas. As the Romans might have commented ‘amor vincit omnia’ (love conquers all).

Friday, 21 February 2014

Shut that door!

Many parents of small children find the constant demands of their young ones can sometimes get a bit trying. The final straw can often be the inability to go to the toilet, shut and lock the door, and claim a few minutes peace and privacy.  

For millions of people in the world, there is never any privacy for these daily bodily functions. Open defecation is their only option.  So along with improved health and hygiene, twinning your toilet with a latrine overseas is an act that can bestow a more intangible - but arguably no less important - benefit:  a private space to respond to the call of nature.
A room without a view: Ugandan toilets with doors that shut.
Photo: Vernon Kingsley/Toilet Twinning

Different cultures, of course, have different attitudes to privacy, and the need for privacy also varies between individuals.  Many of us will know the irritation of having our personal space invaded, for example when someone stands ‘too close for comfort’ while talking to you.  Others are happy to put almost all their emotions and actions out on social media.

And where does our need for privacy end and the negativity of loneliness begin?  A high-rise close-the-door culture where relationships become increasingly virtual, accessed through technology rather than face to face, is not a comfortable vision for the future.  

But wherever we would draw our personal line between the private and the public, there are some actions that we would all prefer to do behind closed doors, given the choice.

In her autobiography ‘Daughter of the River’,  Hong Ying describes her youthful experience of communal latrines in 20th century China. Defecation, she said, was  ‘no easy matter, with all those eyes fixed on your exposed private parts...Standing in the queue made me nervous;  so did the squatting itself.’  Constipation became a way of life.

She would use a book or a bag to gain a little privacy, but that brought its own problems: ‘I didn’t want people in the queue thinking I was intentionally shielding my private parts from view.  The last thing I wanted was for those sharp-tongued gossipy women to start saying I had some kind of problem. What did I have that was so great that I wouldn’t let them see it?’

Modern-day public toilets in Beijing, China. At home, toilet facilities are less likely to be shared.
Public toilets without doors are still common in China, but the massive home building programme has brought private facilities to many if not most.  And an occasional use of doorless cubicles, with their rudimentary but welcome plumbing, is one thing. But a daily quest for a private piece of ground, or having to delay defecation until darkness arrives, is quite another.   

Many people in the world’s poorest countries (a club to which China emphatically does not belong) face this reality.  That’s why, when you twin your toilet you are giving a wonderful gift. You are helping people to understand about hygiene, handwashing and the dangers of open defecation for sure;  you are certainly helping them gain the skills to construct latrines; but you are also giving them the blessed relief of little bit of privacy every day of their lives.

Monday, 6 January 2014


Photographer Richard Hanson talks about his obsession with photographing toilets, and his recent assignment in Ethiopia for Toilet Twinning:
Toilet Twinning's advertisement as it appeared in National Geographic magazine

Working all over the UK as a freelance photographer, I’ve noticed hundreds of public toilets have been closed over the past 20 years. I started taking photos of these tiny, quirky monuments to civic pride and convenience. I’ve pulled over at the side of busy dual carriageways and even turned the car around while on a tight deadline just so I don’t miss some gem.

But there’s a tension between my strange obsession with photographing semi-derelict public toilets, and the seriousness of some of the things I’ve seen while I’ve been working overseas.

The first time I really realised how crucial the lack of a good toilet can be was when I travelled to the refugee camps in Goma (then in Zaire, but now known as Democratic Republic of Congo) during the genocide in Rwanda, in 1994. Because the camps were being built on solidified lava fields, no one could dig pit latrines, and in the first week or ten days of the refugees’ arrival, more than 30,000 people died of cholera caused by the appallingly insanitary conditions.

On a recent trip to Ethiopia for Toilet Twinning, my brief was to get a spectacular shot of a toilet in a rural setting. It had to be something that would be good enough to run as a Toilet Twinning advertisement in the National Geographic magazine.

On the first day we found a rather nice latrine near a group of houses, with a view across to the other side of the valley. We agreed that it was worth coming back to catch the latrine in the golden rays of glorious dawn light.  So, stretching the good will of our hosts to the limit, we set off at 5am the next morning, and hiked a mile across the (rather steep) valley.  

We set up the photographic kit in a field with a lovely clear view of the latrine, but instead of the stunning mist-cresting dawn of my dreams, we had an almost English murky greyness. Just the flattest light you can imagine. But we’d come a long way, and this was a shot we’d put a lot of planning into, so we all just waited.  And waited.  And hunkered down against what was in fact a rather damp and cold morning, hoping that the farmer whose field we were in was going to be understanding when he got there, praying a little that the light would change.

I made us wait for over two hours, and finally the sun broke through for around 60 seconds.  It was a beautiful moment but, unfortunately, not one that ever really worked on camera.  The pictures were very lovely landscape shots, nice views of village life in the early morning, but there was nothing that made them clearly ‘toilet’ shots, to tell the story.

So, back to the drawing board. Thankfully, there was a plan B.  Back home I’d been practising shooting a friend’s shed, in the snow at night, to see if I could make something a bit special happen with an old lighting trick.  It had seemed to work in Sheffield, but would it work in Hossana, Ethiopia?

The original photo (c) Richard Hanson/Toilet Twinning

I’ve been photographing and reporting on development issues for over twenty years now, covering tragedies such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the civil war in Sudan, through to wonderfully uplifting stories of hope in Bolivia and Cambodia. But I’ve never had so many emails, texts and Facebook messages as I received about the Toilet Twinning photo taken in Ethiopia. People got in touch saying they’d seen the picture on the door of a portable toilet at the New Wine festival, or at a motorway service station, and thousands more will have seen the advertisement in National Geographic.   
So now, finally, I am famous in my own little world, not for one of the world-changing news events I’ve covered, but for my picture of a toilet. And really, I think I can live with that.

You can read more about how Richard Hanson set up the shot at his blog
You can see his photographic project on public toilets here