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Suitors told no toilet, then no bride

Several Indian states push for 'total sanitation'

  • Rita Joseph, New Delhi
  • India
  • May 14, 2012
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A tribal bride’s insistence on a toilet in her husband’s home revolutionized her village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Anita Bai Narre’s demand, which made headlines worldwide, not only won her US$10,000 and many accolades; it also brought a dramatic change to Ratanpur, her in-laws' village in Betul district. Now, 100 of the 157 houses have sanitation facilities.

But Ratanpur remains an exception. According to India's 2011 census, nearly half the country’s 1.2 billion people (47.2 percent) still have no option but to defecate in the open.

According to a UNICEF study, nearly 30 million schoolchildren have no access to toilets. It has even been cited as a major reason for high drop-out rates, especially among girls; a 2010 government report said 5.9 percent of girls in the 11-14 age group did not attend school.

“My sister stopped going to school because of the lack of a toilet," says one seventh grader in Uttar Pradesh. "You can’t spend six hours in school without going to the toilet even once.”

The problem is most acute in rural areas. where lack of facilities is not traditionally perceived as a problem. “In rural India, toilets are considered a luxury," says Anand Deshmukh, a health worker. "You will find more mobile phones and TV sets than lavatories.”

But rural development minister Jairam Ramesh is determined to bring about a change.

“We have to change old habits, inculcate a sense of shame and develop a junoon - passion - to overcome the problem of open defecation,” he says.

The federal government has taken some practical steps to promote the initiative. The grant for installing a toilet has been hiked considerably, from 2,200 rupees (around US$ 44) to 9,900 rupees. In addition, the country's one million health workers receive a 75 rupee bonus for each toilet they get constructed in their area.

Popular Bollywood actor Vidya Balan has also been persuaded to appear in advertisements and promote total sanitation.

As a result of these endeavors, Jairam Ramesh says progress is being made. "Since we ran the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan - Clean India campaign - Sikkim is free of open defecation," he says. "Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra states have also made great strides toward the goal."

Several other states are now joining in the move towards total sanitation, a millenium development goal. In the north, Haryana has launched its own campaign under the slogan Sauchalaya Nahi To Dulhan Nahi - No Toilet, No Bride.

"The state has a highly skewed gender ratio," says a health worker there,  "so there's little that this patriarchal society can do but give in to the demand."

In Maharashtra, Mumbai and other districts, the 'no toilet no bride' message is being hammered home with posters that say: “I won’t let my daughter marry someone who has no toilet.”

The campaign has taken off on the personal as well as the governmental level. "Women in general have become more vocal in their resentment at having to relieve themselves in the open," says Rathe Singh Shekhawat, a local council leader.

"One of the main intentions of Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan was to empower women, so the campaign highlights concerns about their privacy, security and dignity.”

Jairam Ramesh promises that "every district in the country will be free of open defecation within 10 years."
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