India honors rural women on the front lines of its toilet campaign

The lives of Vasanthi and Gopal have been transformed because of a low-cost toilet. (Credit: Asian Development Bank / Flickr)

As crowds gathered around the world yesterday to celebrate women, India’s Prime Minister Modi paid special honor to thousands of “women champions” who are fighting for a most basic dignity: toilets.

Since 2014, the Indian government has been rolling out its largest sanitation campaign ever. The Clean India Movement, or Swachh Bharat, aims to eradicate open defecation by October 2019 through the construction of 12 million toilets. While the government, NGOs and businesses are undertaking the massive project, rural women have also stepped forward to lead efforts where toilets are most needed.

“The women we are honoring today have shattered so many myths,” Modi said in a speech at yesterday’s event. “They have shown how a positive change has begun in rural India.”

According to the World Health Organization, India by far has the largest population in the world that relieves themselves in the open – usually in fields, forests, bushes or open bodies of water.

The numbers are astonishing: Roughly 626 million people in India – half the population – release nearly 65,000 tonnes of excrement into open spaces every day. That’s more than twice as many people who defecate in the open as the next 18 countries combined and 59 percent of the 1.1 billion people globally who do so.

“The consequences are grave,” Lisa Schectman, director of policy and advocacy at WaterAid, wrote in an email to Humanosphere. “Fecal matter spreads, contaminating drinking water sources, causing a variety of preventable illnesses, like diarrhea, and even death.”

According to the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), open defecation is the “main reason” India reports the most deaths from diarrhea among children under age 5 in the world. Diarrhea and intestinal worms from open defecation also lead to malnutrition, stunting, opportunistic diseases like pneumonia and learning disabilities in children. Not to mention, the practice contributes to the spread of typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, polio and other diseases.

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“While the sanitation crisis impacts everyone, no one is more seriously affected than women and girls, who face [an]increased risk of harassment, health problems and even rape [when]forced to practice open defecation,” Schectman wrote.

To maintain some privacy and dignity, women usually relieve themselves when it is dark. But doing so has left them vulnerable to risks, including snake bites and violent, sexual crimes. According to a recent study, women who defecate in the open are twice as likely to be raped than women who use a toilet. For girls, a lack of toilets often forces them to drop out of school when menstruation begins.

Unsurprisingly, the problem is most prevalent in poor and rural communities. About 65 percent of the rural population practices open defecation compared to 12 percent of the urban population, according to UNICEF India. And although more than 160 million people have access to toilets, coverage is so unequal that “open defecation is actually still increasing amongst the poorest segment of the population.”

Because open defecation is socially acceptable, many of the poor are content to wait for the government to provide toilets. They feel it is the government’s responsibility, not theirs.

But not so for the women who Prime Minister Modi honored yesterday. For the health and safety of their children, themselves and other women in their community, these women urgently took it upon themselves to get toilets into their homes and communities through whatever means necessary.

One of these women was 30-year-old Sushila Khurkute. A mother of two and seven-months pregnant, Khurkute single-handedly dug a latrine pit large enough for two toilet blocks. She dug for three days in the rocky ground, while her husband was away working. UNICEF volunteers soon spotted her and informed the village leaders, who then provided her building materials and tools for her to finish the toilets.

Khurkute told local media she barely ate during her first two pregnancies for fear of having to relieve herself in the open. She wanted things to be different for her third. Her district, Palghar in Maharashtra state recently made headlines when hundreds of children died from malnutrition.

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An illiterate tribal (ethnic minority) woman, she is now the “face of the open defecation-free campaign” in Palghar, and she’s going door-to-door educating others about the importance of adequate sanitation.

“If I in my pregnancy can construct a toilet within three days then even you can,” she tells neighbors, according to NDTV.

Palghar district aims to join 110 other districts that are currently open defecation-free by the end of March. Meanwhile, the Clean India movement is charging ahead toward eradication by October 2, 2019 – the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, who Modi quoted as saying, “Sanitation is more important than political independence.”

“We have to work to make cleanliness a day-to-day habit for all, in cities and in villages,” Modi said in his speech yesterday. “And if we maintain cleanliness, we will eliminate diseases that affect poor people the most.”

The U.N. aims to eliminate the practice globally by 2030 as part of Sustainable Development Goal 6 with “special attention” to women and girls in vulnerable situations.

As officials from Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation said in a press release for International Women’s Day, “Open defecation is an indignity that no woman in this country must have to bear.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.