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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.