Sanitation and Gender

From Anju Uppal                                                                                                                            (Facilitator – Participatory Communication)

“bahu phir to tum ghungat bhi khol hi do, ek taraf to apko bahu ka ghungat sarkana bhi gavara nahi aur dusri taraf usse khule mein……”, says the protagonist                             “is tarah to humne kabhi soocha hi nahi”, says the rural woman (mother-in-law character)                                                                                                                                                 “to ab socho”, comes the reply from the protagonist

-public service advertisement for Swacch Bharat Mission (Gramin)

Woman depicted as “izzat” of the family, village and for that matter even nation (since the public service advertisement is about the national programme on sanitation) became a “catchy” strategy across states to address the issue of open defecation in rural areas.

While access to correct information on sanitation and healthy sanitation services is a right of every citizen, connecting it to “izzat” of woman by linking it to “ghungat” meant trivializing and limiting self-respect to female body. Subtly, it further promoted the social bias that maintaining (read protecting) the “izzat” of female body was responsibility of all others.

Well, one may argue that too much is being read from the public service advertisement and it was intended to be so. And that is exactly what one needs to realize that stories created (read manufactured) do not carry only the “message” that the producer/creators wants to give but also his/her perception/attitude and understanding.

While this may be a created piece, aired on different channels and viewed by those having access to television and radio the situation in villages and states seems not much different.

Slogans, wall writing, posters and other communication resources did rely a lot on triggering the “izzat” of woman of the house and village for the men of the village to get motivated and decide that they will construct a toilet in order to safeguard women and her dignity.

Criticism to this point of view by the gender sensitive workers, organisations and an internal reflection by a few sensitive people in the government paved way for delinking the issue of open defecation with “izzat” of women. And taking a position that open defecation led to health risks and thus every member of the family including children had to move away from the practice of open defecation and use sanitary toilets.

The effort at making ‘No Open Defecation’ a priority of the village required all focused efforts at mobilizing the community, communicating with all, creating an environment where in every member of the community is convinced and willing to bring about a shift in her/his behaviour.  And, it has been well realized that no rules, force and orders of any kind can bring about the desired sustainable change in behaviour.  Hence men, women, children, PRI members and all others from the community are being mobilized. But in many villages it is women who are playing a proactive role in mobilizing and motivating people by reaching out, creating awareness, engaging in dialogue, monitoring behaviour restricting people from practicing open defecation.

Perhaps, it is understood that women are patient, “workers” and committed in more than one ways to achieve desired social change based on the role that they have played in other social change processes.

As a result, members of Self Help Groups (SHGs) of women were invited to come together, plan rallies, make placards, go door-to-door, perform plays, sing and play an important role in the “Nigrani Samitis” to ensure that their village is declared “Open Defecation Free”. And as the work on ‘No Open Defecation’ is progressing in states and districts, the contribution of women is being recognized and appreciated by villagers as also the district, state and central administration.

Soon all houses in villages will have latrine and all members of the family will be using it – old and young, men and women, children and youth. Thus, by the year 2019 the country will be declared as Open Defecation Free.

The men including PRI representatives of the village say it with a lot of pride that women from their village have played a very crucial role as members of the ‘Nigrani Samitis’. The women have been doing rounds of the village as early as 4 am and as late at 7 pm to ensure that no one from the village goes in the open for defecation. And it is hoped that sustainability of the practice of using sanitary toilets and moving away from open defecation will emerge as a result of the active engagement of the community.

But the crucial question is – Is it possible to sustain change in behaviour unless issues related to social disparity and inequality are addressed simultaneously?

A society that considers latrines as “filthy”, shit as “dirty” and people engaged in cleaning of toilets as untouchables thereby by establishing a hierarchical social order wherein the so-called “lowest” jobs are forced down upon communities or persons who have little or no voice.

While this social situation will remain untouched, every house will have a latrine and whose responsibility will it be to clean and maintain latrines to be used by the entire family?

A young man from a village says, “Of course it is the woman of the house who cleans the toilets because she spends more time at home and all domestic chores are her responsibility.” A woman from another village says, “How can men from the family be asked to clean the toilets after all they are head of the family.”

If patriarchy is not addressed while mobilizing communities to construct and use sanitary latrines:

  • Who will have to take the responsibility of maintaining the “Y” junction in twin-pit?
  • Who will do the cleaning of septic (read storage) tank?
  • Who will clean the pit and remove the black soil?
  • Who will make the decision with regard to repairs or maintenance if it involves expenses?
  • Who will easily move away from the practice of using toilets?
  • Who will continue to use the toilets in future?

This further leads us to question the entire notion related to labour wherein certain kinds of work are considered “productive” and others are viewed as “unproductive”. So all jobs that contribute to the GDP and earn cash or value are “productive” work and all domestic chores end up as non-paid “unproductive” work. As a result those engaged in “productive” work earn a respectable social status while the efforts of those engaged in “non-productive” work are not even recognized of any indirect value to social and national asset and human building.

Those who are “respectable” will hold all control and power of decision-making, be it in family or community or state and others will end up as “implementers”, “mobilisers” (doing so-called non-productive work) namesake or no role in decision-making.

If this is a reality than it is no surprise that while women in large numbers play an active role in mobilization, reaching out and communicating with their fellow men and women but the process, in most villages, is led by men of the community – male Sarpanch or Sarpanch-pati (if it was woman reserved seat), male community leader, local male entrepreneur…

Do we not need to consciously design processes that challenge patriarchal norms?

Should national and state programmes be an end in itself or a means to address social inequality and discrimination?

Can government servants not lead the process of social transformation and make the Constitution of India a reality?



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