These women have broken all stereotypes to improve sanitation in rural India

At a time when many national and international media report on the atrocities committed against women in India, the stories of women’s leadership in development remains an oft-ignored story. As India pitches headlong into making toilets in the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), there are heart-warming stories of women leading campaigns for better lives in their panchayats against heavy odds. A small percentage of the 271,000 villages that have rid themselves of open defecation can be attributed solely to the efforts of these women.

Research has shown women gain more than men from better sanitation and hygiene. They can use toilets in the safety of their homes and do not have to face insults or harassment when defecating or urinating in the open. Their health improves as they do not have to ‘hold on' until dark. Using toilets reduces the risk of getting urinary tract infections, diarrhoea and water-borne infections. Women, as block development officers, sarpanches, jalabandhus and self-help group (SHG) members, have demonstrated sanitation improvements are possible utilising local resources and strategies.

Each panchayat receives between Rs 5 lakhs and 50 lakhs each year from the government for development programmes. A sarpanch can make an enormous difference towards the way these resources are used. The sarpanch is responsible for 29 functions including rural development, health, education, roads and electricity under the Panchayati Raj Act. With a little support by way of training and inspiration from higher-up government officials, sarpanches have made a vast difference to their panchayats.


Sarpanches Lead From The Front

Take the case of Chandramani Jani, the former sarpanch of Bada Kerenga panchayat in Koraput district, Odisha. Each morning, she set out to cajole her fellow villagers to make and use toilets. The scattered hamlets took her a long while to visit but she made it a point to visit each one of them each week and listen to their problems, offer solutions and take action with the block development officer.


“I was persistent. Most toilets were completed in a few days. Some took longer as people wanted better toilets and added bathing areas with their own funds,” said Chandramani. "It was harder to convince them to use toilets, and I had to put in extra efforts to make sure this happened.” Odisha’s Chief Minister Navin Patnaik awarded her for making her panchayat free from open defecation. In Bada Kerenga panchayat, you see no cesspools of water and the streets are devoid of litter, garbage or cow dung. And of course, there is no smell of human excreta wafting in on the breeze.

Rajasthan conjured up images of women in veils divested of any power to take decisions, restricted to home and hearth. But there are exceptions. In Kharda panchayat, Pali district, sarpanch Rekha Kanwar, also a member of one of the Mahila Poorna Shakti self-help groups in the village, made this open defecation free (ODF) in a matter of months. “I heard about how sanitation helps improve women’s health and dignity at a night chaupal with the collector in December 2014. I asked him to help me make my panchayat ODF, and he scheduled a visit of trained motivators who spent five days in the villages."

In the beginning, only 30 families of the 600 in the panchayat had toilets. In about four months, the coverage rose dramatically. In six months, the panchayat was declared ODF. Kanwar says they are regularly used by all family members. SHGs have been instrumental in persuading women to construct and ensure toilets are used by all their family members. Kanwar organised women into teams after the motivators’ sessions to work as Nigrani committees. The streets have a drainage system that takes the water from households to a pond outside the village. They are dry, and there is no garbage strewn in the corners.

In Rajasthan’s Nagaur district’s Dabriyani panchayat, sarpanch Manju Meghwal was similarly inspired to eliminate open defecation at a block meeting. She asked her block's development officer to depute trained motivators who spent five days triggering villagers. She took the lead and set up Nigrani committees in each ward, led by ward members. They conduct rounds of their areas every morning and evening to make sure people use their toilets. Manju makes it a point to be part of these patrols. While toilet coverage increased to 90% from 50%, importantly, people have continued to use them. Dabriyani’s villages are clean.

To be sure, the wastewater from the village collects in a pond outside that is in a sorry shape Manju has made a plan to treat it. “I was told about a natural process to treat this water. I will make an artificial wetland that will beautify the pond and attract birds and animals. Then I will train some people to look after it and keep animals out, so it does not get damaged," she says.

Elsewhere, in Uttar Pradesh, the pradhan of Dharampur panchayat of Bijnor, Mamta Chaudhry, was instrumental in promoting and consolidating sanitation. The quality of toilets is a testament to the success of the campaign in the panchayat: the new toilets have tiles and are spacious while the older ones are smaller and plastered with cement. However, the critical fact is people are using toilets.

Inspired by a meeting with the district collector, she determined to make Dharampur ODF. This panchayat is a trendsetter of sorts as neighbouring panchayats follow its lead. At a meeting of pradhans, Mamta stood up and asked for help from the district’s sanitation team to make her panchayat ODF. With the team, she went house-to-house to motivate people. Emphasising how toilets were crucial for women’s dignity, she stopped people from defecating in the open in 15 days; construction of toilets for all took about 40 days.

What has worked for her and the village is its relative prosperity and the fact her family has dominated village politics since 1985. She beautified a little primary school in her village with a lovely tiled toilet for girls and boys. “On birthdays, I give children soaps and encourage them to speak about handwashing at home,” she says.

Empowered women of self-help groups

In Bondaguda panchayat of Koraput district, Odisha, in 2013 the district government picked 42 SHGs from Mission Shakti to promote sanitation. Their women became entrepreneurs. The Bondaguda Mahila Mandal set up a centre to supply toilet construction materials with a seed capital of Rs 50,000. However, while only below poverty line (BPL) families were eligible for the sanitation subsidy, under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, preceding the Swachh Bharat Mission, even above poverty line (APL) families were too poor to make their own toilets.

One SHG leader Naranga Pujari suggested the subsidy for toilets be given to the community instead of individuals. This worked because of social cohesion among the Kondh tribe that makes up most of the population. The SHG members made bricks, bringing down their costs substantially. Women made toilets where it suited them, near their kitchens. The kitchens were usually large, and nobody could see them going to the latrine. They also made a bathroom, making it more utilitarian. Naranga Pujari became a sanitation champion.

Administrators flex their muscles

Further up the administrative ladder, block development officers (BDOs) have also been instrumental in sanitation. Rekha Gour, the BDO of Parbatsar block in Nagaur, is responsible for 36 panchayats. She rattles off statistics of each panchayat. “Khokhar panchayat had 160 poor families. The local leader Rathore offered to arrange materials on credit. When he ran short of masons, I assigned them from neighbouring panchayats. I sent the motivators for triggering sessions.”

She started a sanitation campaign in October 2014 and later dovetailed it with the district’s approach. To see what was possible, she picked five panchayats, including Khokhar, to make ODF by 2nd October 2015. Using ratri chaupals (night meetings) and public rallies, she made Khokhar ODF. Her campaign picked up in 2016 when the district resource group (DRG) teams were introduced along with several district-level initiatives such as the talk show, Coffee with Collector, for sarpanches who have done notable work. "There have been times I have organised my own calendar for deploying DRG teams rather than letting them sit idle," says Rekha.

Collateral benefits

In West Bengal, Rina Paik is a former sarpanch and a water and sanitation champion in Bapuji Gram Panchayat. She showed her leadership skills when she joined a community healthcare management initiative as the group leader. She was trained by a local NGO to repair handpumps and put her skills to use setting up a small business. Now, she manages the water supply systems in two panchayats. She has the confidence to speak with the samiti officers and even the district administration. “I have a government license to bid for water and sanitation contracts in two panchayats. I have earned over Rs 1 lakh over two years and employ 7-8 boys.

These women are educated and have supportive families. The sarpanches take their own decisions. Manju says, “My husband is busy with his own work. We do not speak about panchayat affairs at home. I take decisions for the panchayat myself. After all, I have been voted sarpanch.” This despite the fact the former sarpanch was from her husband’s family.

There is talk of fostering local leaders who can ensure development works are well executed. Sarpanchs are these local leaders who are grounded and with five-year terms can make a significant contribution.

Complementing their efforts and helping them succeed is a responsive district administration. District collectors/magistrates, chief executive officers and executive engineers have shown how to engage with and provide space for women to feel comfortable while making their case. In several district offices, groups of women sarpanches can be seen walking in with their demands and grievances.

Women waited outside and were always called separately. They are no less vocal in their meetings that were always held separately from men. What is heartening is even in Rajasthan and Western UP, where women mostly shroud their faces, these outspoken women had no such compunctions in front of men. Mamta Chaudhry said, "If we cover our faces, how do we expect to be taken seriously by these officials?" She nicely sums up how some women sarpanches and pradhans have ‘come out' and showed the way to countless others how to be a leader.

They have not entirely broken out of the gender stereotypes. Sarpanch or not, all have to manage household chores and children. Their position has also helped gain currency within the village. Women from other households take their word seriously. Men also listen. But for every Mamta Chaudhry, there are many whose words do not filter through the veil. These local leaders have seldom found mention. But their bold steps inspire many others.

(The article has been authored by Nitya Jacob and Sunetra Lala. Nitya is a water and sanitation policy analyst. He advises several organizations on strategy and programmes and has written on traditional water practices. Sunetra Lala is the Sector Lead for water, sanitation and Hygiene for SNV Netherlands Development Organisation in Cambodia.)