In India’s Sheohar district, women are keen to talk about the safety that comes with having a toilet at home… Women are leading the charge in the quiet revolution unfolding in Bihar State…
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 toilets we’ve come to photograph.
At the mention of toilets, they are keen to talk, because here it is women who benefit most from having a latrine. Women are leading the charge in the quiet revolution unfolding in Bihar State. “I built a toilet for my daughter and daughter-in-law, and now they are safe,” says Nirmala Devi, who lives in Parsauni Baij, Sheohar district. Women’s safety is a key driver behind the big push for sanitation in these villages, led by an Indian NGO called Discipleship Centre. We’re here as Toilet Twinning, a partnership between development agencies Cord and Tearfund to raise money for sanitation projects. As in most poor, rural areas in India, open defecation is still the norm. But while men 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. “It’s very difficult for girls to go outside in the darkness, and they’re worried about snake bites and other problems,” says Devi. “Other problems” is a euphemism for attacks on women, which are far from uncommon… Nearby, in Dumri village, Ranju Sharma is equally enthusiastic about her toilet. Hers is a 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 Sharma is often left alone to bring up their two boys. Installing a toilet last year ended their daily trek into the bushes behind their home. “When I had to go outside, I used to be frightened,” she says. “In the night, there are snakes there and lots of other problems. My children didn’t want to go outside either: they used to get dirty and have diarrhoea … but not now.”
Focusing on women is key to Discipleship Centre’s strategy. It’s a bold move in these conservative, rural areas. Discipleship Centre works closely with 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. She tells of 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.” Most women want a toilet so Rani and her colleagues often target women’s community groups. Sharma saved £1 a month through a local women’s self-help group to pay for her toilet, which cost £90.
Prime minister Narendra Modi’s Government has set itself a huge challenge: to end open defecation by 2019. Yet people in Sheohar feel they are off the Government radar. The Government offers grants to help poor families install a toilet, but the funding has to be applied for retrospectively, with no guarantee the application will succeed. Many people can’t afford to take that risk. So Discipleship Centre works with partners in Bihar, from community-based groups to NGOs such as Water for People and Tearfund. It also gets families to partner with it, encouraging them to contribute finance and labour towards their own toilet. Discipleship Centre believes its key partners are women. Harnessing their enthusiasm and presenting their needs is fundamental to “hygiene education”…Encouraging communities to break with centuries-old tradition is hard work. But Discipleship Centre’s project officer, Dwijendra Mandal, believes it’s just a question of patience and persistence. “When one person in a village has a latrine, everyone wants one,” he says. n
(Seren Boyd is a writer for Toilet Twinning)
– The Guardian