Toilets for women can change their lives and of the country

Toilets for women can change their lives and of the country

This isn’t often easy. Just a few kilometres away from showrooms that advertise gold faucets and offer ways of turning bathrooms into glamour rooms, the women of Kusumpur, a slum area in Delhi, are lining up to use public toilets in distinctly unglamorous conditions.

Kusumpur has almost no private toilets and only one public toilet for every 500 women. As Usha Kumari, a longtime resident, says, the impact on these women’s lives is stark.
“If you have to go to school or a job, you have to be up early to line up for water from the common tap to wash, then for the toilet,” she said. “Some days I have to use the flying toilet and freshen up in the Metro bathroom.”

The ‘flying toilet’ is a common solution in Indian slums to the lack of bathrooms. Women with no access to clean public toilets often use a plastic bag, then deposit the bag and its contents in the trash later.

In a 2009 study, the Centre for Civil Society, a nonprofit organisation, estimated that the capital had only 132 public toilets for women, many of them barely functioning, compared with 1,534 for men. The effect of this, in Delhi and across urban India, is to severely limit the mobility of women and their ability to work efficiently.

Marie Rodriguez, a market stall owner in Margao, Goa, described the difference toilets can make. “Once the municipality installed a toilet for women here, I could take over the shop from my son,” she said. “Before that, I could come in and help, but staying the entire day was impossible.”

For thousands of women across India, the existence of a toilet near their workplace is no small thing. It affects women’s ability to work, their safety (many rapes in slums and rural India happen in areas where women have to walk a long way to reach the toilet) and their mobility.

The impact on women’s lives, as a study by the nonprofit organisation Aser shows, begins early. Its Annual Status of Education Report for 2010 confirms the link between providing separate toilets for girls in schools and girls’ dropout rates. Only 4 in 10 government schools, according to the group’s data, have functioning toilets for girls, and this strongly influences the girls’ ability to attend school. In Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh — three states with the lowest percentage of toilets for girls — the numbers for girls’ school attendance are correspondingly low.

Signs of change

There are signs of change, though, and one of the most surprising may be in the matrimonial market. Four years ago, the Haryana government started its ‘No Toilet, No Bride’ campaign, painting walls across the state with the slogan: “I won’t allow my daughter to marry into a home without toilets.”

Today, as 23-year-old Nimmi Singh, who is now engaged to be married, insists, a groom with a loo is essential. Her family in the city of Rohtak rejected two bathroom-less grooms before locating a family willing to install one in time for the wedding. “It’s a matter of pride,” she said. “Why should I have to go to the fields?”

And in Delhi, marriage brokers confirm that many families will now ask whether the groom’s family has a bathroom of its own before going ahead with nuptial negotiations.
Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu, an inventor is hoping to usher in a separate but equally important revolution. A few years ago, A Muruganatham made news with his campaign to create a low-cost sanitary napkin that could be used by poor women in both urban and rural India. He pursued a ‘Gandhian operation’ to make cheap sanitary napkins: women would use his company’s technology to set up their own manufacturing units at home, much as the charkha was used to spin homespun cloth two generations ago.

He isn’t alone — Procter & Gamble has entered a partnership with the ministry of health and family welfare’s national rural health mission to produce inexpensive sanitary napkins for rural women in Rajasthan.

A recent survey by the nongovernmental organisation Plan India indicated how great the need for innovations of this kind are here. It found that 68 per cent of rural women in India could not afford something as basic as a sanitary napkin. It also found that reproductive tract infections were 70 per cent more prevalent among women who lacked access to such hygienic supplies for that time of the month.

That’s what Muruganatham is trying to change. “I wanted to make cheap napkins affordable for women like my wife and my sister,” he said. “With the ‘small is beautiful’ model, we want to give dignity back to women.”

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