Women in northern India said, ‘No toilet, no bride,’ and it worked

Ashwini, 29, together with her nieces Deepti and Yogita, has a low cost toilet in her house. The women and children used to defecate in the hills behind the house. The latrine has brought dignity and privacy to their lives. (Credit: Asian Development Bank / Flickr)

For about 12 years, young women in the northern Indian state of Haryana have been telling suitors, “No loo, no ‘I do!'” And according to a recent study, the bargain is working: Toilet ownership has significantly increased as men scramble to attract brides in a marriage market where discrimination has made women scarce.

Through radio spots, billboards, posters and painted slogans on buildings, the “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign, launched by state authorities in 2005, encourages women and their families to demand that male suitors build a private latrine before they will agree to marriage. According to the study, published last month in ScienceDirect, private sanitation coverage increased by 21 percent in Haryana among households with boys active on the marriage market from 2004 to 2008.

However, the study also found that the low-cost social marketing campaign was only successful because it was able to take advantage of “one of the most severely skewed sex ratios on earth.”

Like most of northern India, Haryana values males much more than females. Even before birth, males often receive far better care, while females face a high risk of selective abortion because of their gender. Once born, girls continue to face discrimination through constraints on health care, movement, education or employment. However, they also face much higher risk of violence due to the widespread practice of open defecation.

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Globally, 1.1 billion people today defecate in open spaces, such as fields, but the problem is especially concentrated in India, where 626 million people do so. To maintain some semblance of privacy and dignity, women and girls usually take care of business under cover of darkness, making them more vulnerable to harassment, rape, kidnapping and wild animal attacks. According to the study, about 70 percent of rural households in Haryana did not have a private latrine in 2004.

Recognizing the urgent need for sanitation, the Indian government launched a community-led “Total Sanitation Campaign” in 1999. But Haryana state authorities, inspired by the work of a local nongovernmental organization, saw a unique opportunity to achieve a public policy goal (sanitation) by exploiting deeply rooted social norms (marriage) and marriage market conditions (a scarcity of women).

“Despite widespread and persistent discrimination, heightened competition on the male side of the market has shaped the overall bargaining environment” and increased women’s bargaining power, the study said.

The benefit has been felt most deeply not only by the brides, but also the sisters and mothers of the grooms who can enjoy the safety, convenience and health benefits of a latrine in their home as well. And after years of the information campaign, brides do not even have to make the demand themselves in some cases. Men have begun to recognize that saving up to build a latrine is a standard prerequisite to marriage.

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“I will have to work hard to afford a toilet,” Harpal Sirshwa, a 22-year-old at the time, told the Washington Post in 2009. “We won’t get any bride if we don’t have one now. I won’t be offended when the woman I like asks for a toilet.”

Based on government household surveys, the study reported that 1.42 million toilets were built between 2005 and 2009. Of those, 470,000 were built by households below the poverty line. The numbers may not overshadow those of other sanitation campaigns and randomized control trials in India, but the “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign is comparatively very cost-effective.

Unfortunately, in marriage markets where there is not a significant scarcity of women the study found that “No Toilet, No Bride” had little to no effect. However, in regions like northern India where the sex ratio is skewed, the campaign has already begun to expand into neighboring states, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. In February, 110 villages took it one step further by requiring grooms obtain certificates verifying their toilets before they can marry.

“Open defecation is not only an unhygienic habit, but also it often leads to crime against women,” Yahya Karimi, who oversaw the decision, told Times of India. “So, unless a groom has a toilet at his house, he won’t get a bride.”

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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.