For India to achieve the seemingly impossible goal of being free from open defecation, mothers in the country have to inculcate the habit of using toilets among future generations.
Mamta hurries towards the bushes, glancing over her shoulder frequently. She avoids eye contact with a passer-by, holds her chunni close, her hand clasped tightly with that of her daughter’s. Her head down, her posture almost apologetic, she makes her way through the bushes to relieve herself. After some respite, she watches her daughter imitate her. She can’t help but wonder if her daughter’s future will be the same. If she will also have to go through her days, uncomfortable, bloated, weak and in pain. After a few moments, she cleans herself and her daughter, gathers her clothes quickly, grabs her bucket, her daughter and begins her journey towards home. She only hopes that she will make it for the next 12 hours without any major discomfort. In many rural areas of the country, women like Mamta have watched their mothers, grandmothers and even great-grandmothers practise open defecation with complete resignation. Taught from a very young age that toilets are not meant to be part of the household infrastructure, they dutifully walk several kilometres every day to relieve themselves. Many find it difficult and dehumanising, some even feel threatened and uncomfortable. However, now almost all such women have embraced it.
According to a 2017 report by WaterAid, titled, Out Of Order: The State of the World’s Toilets, India had the highest number of people (732 million) without access to toilets, out of which, 355 million were women and girls. As a matter of fact, women and girls often face serious threats to their life and safety. When they go to the fields to relieve themselves, they are often followed, stalked and ogled at. In a few horrific cases, women have been beaten and raped while conducting private business.
Therefore, to protect their dignity, they avoid going to the toilet repeatedly during the day by minimising their intake of food and water. This often causes several health problems like anaemia and stunted growth among others. Additionally, the sheer humiliation women face when they have to defecate openly leads to irreparable psychological damages, too. Other than poor health, the lack of toilets has caused women and girls to drop out of school and get limited education or face harassment. In rural areas, most girls drop out of schools at an early age because of the lack of toilets.
India is a country of over a 1.3 billion people, out of which over 320 million defecate in the open. What’s more startling is that the country accounts for 60 per cent of the world’s population that lives without sanitation. While no other country has taken a decisive stance on sanitation, the Government has been addressing this infrastructural challenge on a mission mode. But much more needs to be done.
Given the complex nature of India’s sanitation problem, initiatives geared towards toilet construction and behaviour change need to be strengthened, in addition to other infrastructural and skilling issues. The Government cannot be held solely responsible for this. In order to make these more effective and increase collective ownership, public-private partnership becomes an obvious solution, especially in terms of financing and providing technology interventions. The underlying idea is to identify localised systems and translate related knowledge and research into effective and widespread action.
The conceptualisation and implementation of the Swachh Bharat mission in 2014 created a movement to solve infrastructural issues and fulfill the goal of universal sanitation coverage. Data from the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) portal suggests that 27 out of India’s 36 States and Union Territories are now open defecation free (ODF) with 98.6 per cent of Indian households having access to toilets. While the Government must be congratulated for this remarkable feat, it must also realise that for India to achieve 100 percent open defecation free status, a comprehensive behavioural change strategy is a must. The focus of future communication strategies must be on changing the mindset of the people, who still hold on to puritan religious beliefs and refrain from installing a toilet within their premises as they view them as impure.
People in rural areas even mock the toilet culture itself. Under coercion, many have built toilets in their homes, consoling themselves by using it as a storage space. Many do not even understand why toilets have to be used when vast forest areas are at their disposal. How does one explain to those, who have grown accustomed to defecating openly since their childhood, that a toilet experience is much more than just building and using them? It is inclusive of diverse aspects such as human waste management, smart technology for sanitation, data collection and maternal health management.
Campaigns need to be designed to challenge societal norms and cultural attitudes by bringing men and women together to understand the requirement of a toilet. Once these campaigns establish a cause-and-effect relationship between access to toilets and better health and financial outcomes, people may become more accustomed to using toilets.
What must not be forgotten is that many campaigns have actually been designed for base of the pyramid consumers. Affordability is always an issue. Toilets in any rural household, whether rich or poor, are considered low on priority. At times, women are not even consulted even if what is at stake is their comfort. This is mainly because of prevailing mindsets, mostly in rural India. This is why men need to be part of the process and made aware of how toilets can provide and protect dignity of their women. Progress can only be deep and enduring when the community itself is involved in the planning, decision-making and implementation process. Wherever the devolution of power has happened at the level of community women, the Swachh Bharat has been an empowering tool of not only change but women’s health.
While behaviour change is the Achilles heel of a successful campaign, women can become the cornerstones or foundation of success for such drives. If the woman, as a primary caregiver, is aware of safe sanitation and the toilet culture, she will be able to inculcate the same in her children.
Take the case of Mamta. She has a daughter, who needs to be toilet-trained. Should Mamta resort to teaching her in the bushes, or explain to her why she needs to use a toilet? What if Mamta herself is unaware of how to use a toilet? Or why exactly she needs a toilet? What if there is no toilet in the village? How will Mamta help her daughter toilet-train in a healthy manner?
Between the ages of one and six, a child’s perception of right and wrong, his/her ability to adapt and respond to situations, primary responses and reflex actions are determined. A mother’s ability to position a toilet as a safe space, where her child can go and relieve herself without being stared at, without feeling humiliated, without being violated, is what makes her so indispensable to the sanitation movement.
In essence, India will move forward one mother at a time, one child at a time. This is critical not just for the nation’s social and economic prosperity but also for the progress of the next generation. It is important for campaigns and policies to pay heed to the fact that as primary caregivers, mothers are indeed the forerunners of the sanitation movement in India.
(The writer is Asia Pacific head of public affairs of a Japanese firm)
Writer: Priyanka Tanwar
Courtesy: The Pioneer