Age is not a factor when it comes to changing behavior or leading change. This was demonstrated plainly by Janukha Bewa (70) of Chhayghari gram panchayat in Berhampore block of Murshidabad district in West Bengal. Not only did she herself adopt safe sanitation practices, she also joined the Nazardari committee with a view to keeping her village clean and open defecation free (ODF), in the process, earning the name ‘Gandhi Buri.’
Commenting on the septuagenarian’s acquired title, Anup Kr Dutta, Secretary, Murshidabad Zila Parishad said that every day after namaz (worship), the Muslim lady is seen at the field, engaged in keeping vigil of common open defecation sites and advising people that she comes across, about the need to use toilets for the health and well being of the whole community.
It hasn’t been easy for Janukha who lost her husband at an early age, leaving her to raise her 3 sons and 5 daughters on her own, while grappling with her hand to mouth existence. Although she never went to school, she had learnt plenty of life lessons from her everyday experiences, which gave her a firm belief in society, its values and the need for solidarity.
In Chhayghari that is spread across 1020.25 hectares of land with a population of 12,388 individuals, open defecation was common, a practice that has remained virtually unchanged since time immemorial. The findings of the baseline survey of 2012 revealed that there were 3614 homes that did not have access to toilets. When the Swachh Bharat Mission Grameen (SBM-G) campaign was launched on October 2014, initially, there was some progress in toilet construction, but not so in behavior patterns. Consequently, although many homes had toilets, its residents continued to defecate in the open.
Prior to 2014, Janukha and her family, along with all their neighbours did the same, walking to the fields in the early hours of the morning to prevent being spotted upon. However, her health took a turn for the worst, and added to her age-related problems, that made her weak. So she had a kachha toilet constructed outside her home and began to use it. Unhygienic and unsafe though it was, it meant she did not have to walk a few kilometers to perform her ablutions. It had to do, she thought.
By this time, her children had left home, barring her grandson who helped her with some odd jobs in the house. It was a bleak phase in her life, when she as well as her grandson were often ill, having to spend their hard earned money on one medical treatment or the other. She frequently discussed her worries with her neighbours, anxious about the financial crisis that loomed ahead.
It was around this time that the district administration of Murshidabad carried out various activities using the CAS (community approaches to sanitation) method to mobilize the community and bring about behavior change. They enlisted the support of Self Help Groups (SHGs) who after being oriented to CAS, visited families that still resorted to open defecation or owned unhygienic toilets.
The leader of one such SHG, Mafuja Biwi heard about the challenges being faced by Janukha. Along with her team, she visited the latter’s home and came upon the kachha toilet. They discussed with her at length about the faecal oral route to disease transmission. As far as Janukha was concerned, since she was already using a toilet, albeit kachha, they did not have to change her behavior. They simply had to convince her to get a proper twin pit toilet constructed to protect the health of her family. Using leaflets and other IEC material printed by the block, that showcased the design of a scientific toilet, they advised Janukha. The older woman did not need to be told twice. With the help of SHG members, over the next few days, she demolished the kachha toilet and got a proper toilet built.
Janukha wouldn’t have felt the need to appeal to people to build twin pit toilets and use them, if not for her grandson. Even one person defecating in the open would jeopardize the health of the whole community, she realized, knowing that her grandson would not be safe until all people used their toilets.
Equipped with this information, she now visits homes and appeals to people with folded hands, asking them to adopt hygienic sanitation practices. The oldest member of the Nazardari committee, she participates in their monitoring exercises. She takes pride in the fact that all people in her village now use toilets regularly.