Open defecation is a huge problem in India. Not only does it leave the country polluted and public spaces extremely unpleasant to be in, it also leaves young children, or anyone who has to go to the toilet in this way, very vulnerable. Imagine having to leave your house in the middle of the night and risk a snake bite - or worse like harassment, assault and rape - just to go for a wee?
The issue disproportionately affects girls. Again, imagine yourself having to cope with your period while going to the toilet in the open without shelter or dignity. Think of what it would be like to have to find a place to change your pad and dispose of it without a bathroom. This pressure leaves lots of girls bound to their house during their monthly period, feeling unable to leave their home.
See this article: Periods are a pain – but they shouldn’t stop a girl’s education
The thing is, the problem isn't easily solved. For some people, including many of the families we help, open defecation is an entrenched practice; one which to change is as much about changing the minds of people as it is simply building a new toilet for their house.
The reality is that lots of families do have access to previously built community bathrooms. During my recent 3 months in India I averted my eyes each time I looked out of my window onto the dry lake bed, as there was nearly always someone there squatting down ready to ‘do their business’. It wasn’t until after a few weeks later that I realise the big purple brick building just 30 meters away from this open defecation spot was actually a public bathroom with 6 toilet stalls. They certainly didn’t look well used and even if someone had wanted to use them they would have been instantly put off by the gang of men stood around drinking and sleeping outside of them.
Prime Minister Modi announced that his government will build 12 million toilets throughout rural India by 2019, the cost of which is $29 billion. While this may be impressive and seemly show a dedication to making India ODF (Open Defecation Free), we hope that it will be matched by a dedication to teaching people about health and sanitation; showing them how to use these facilities and making sure they are constructed in a way that makes them safe for young girls and women to use.
Read: Inside India’s massive plans to end Open Defecation for 564m people by 2019, Global Citizen November 16 2016
According to this article by Global Citizen at the time of writing a further 666 districts are left to declare themselves as ODF, with 21 having done so so far. This article also writes that “Overall, 55.3% of rural household have toilets [in Nov 2016] compared to 42% in 2014.”
My Name is Kumar has first hand experience of seeing this percentage rise, with a handful of families in the communities we work in having had bathrooms built for them by other non-governmental organisations and corporate social responsibility programmes. However in all my recent visits to these communities when I needed to go to the bathroom I was pointed toward the field behind the community hall. Which I went to with much dread and sideways glances, hoping that a bus load of people didn’t go past just as I dropped my trousers, as one of the community women stood guard for me . The toilets that had been built for them were instead used as a useful dry place to store rice and other food stuffs.
It is now less than 2 years before before Prime Minister Modi’s ODF deadline of Mahatma Ghandi’s 150th birthday (2 October 2019) will pass. I really hope that all the money and work going into making India ODF free will pay off. My Name is Kumar eagerly await the impact it will have on the families we work with. And I really hope all these efforts don’t go down the pan.
Words by Alyce Biddle, Community Manager
Photos by Adam Dickens from Taking pictures, Changing Lives