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“Teacher, May I Go To The Toilet?” What toilet?

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By Mehernaz Patel:

Let’s wind the clock back two years ago.

2013: Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi makes a bold statement. Says, we should build toilets first, temples later. He even goes so far as to claim that despite him being thought of as a Hindutva leader, this is an issue he believes is more pressing for our nation.

The press pondered, the elite commented and then it passed.

Fast forward one year.

2014: Now Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a headliner at the Global Citizen Festival and brings the issue of open sanitation to an international audience. This is also the year Mr. Modi launches the much debated Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, whose two major components deal with provision of clean and cost-effective latrines.

Again, pondering, commenting and then the issue passed.

Photo Credit
Photo Credit

Now this is no way to negate the work that is being put into such endeavours. Neither is it a participation in the ever popular media soap “Blame it on Modi.” It is simply an illustration of how easily even the most basic rights of citizens such as sanitation flit in and out of public consciousness as a whole.

Sanitation in India is always perceived to be an important issue. John Oliver reared his head midst the 2014 national election with a satirical bit on the “pro-toiletness” of Narendra Modi’s platform. Even if his jibe were considered in poor taste by those who might jump up at a chance to defend some other completely unrelated comedy act, there is no denying its importance in both political and social rhetoric.

Yet, an aspect of the national sanitation drives that tends to go under the radar for the most part, is the presence of toilets in school buildings in India.

The Supreme Court in 2014 re-asserted itself by saying that separate toilets and drinking water facilities were indispensable when it came to schools. This was an echo of its 2012 ruling that schools across the country should provide satisfactory toilet facilities to both its teachers and students so as to provide them with an education that would prepare them for vocational pursuits. A noble cause if any.

The idea of a Right to Education is far from a new one after all, having been part of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which was adopted in 1966. In India, it is part of our Constitution as article 21-A, wherein the government is legally obligated to provide that ideal “free and compulsory education” to all children between ages 6 to 14.

Cut to today though, and like most rulings made by the judiciary, their implementation leaves a bit to be desired.

Looking at the DISE reports from 2013-14, only four Union Territories have no schools that lack in sanitation facilities, every single other state or Union Territory has a few loos amiss in their educational facilities. The states of Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Andhra Pradesh are faring the worst. Bihar has 17,892 schools without toilets for girls and 19,422 without toilets for boys. Which means a little more than half the schools in the state are without toilets of some kind.

This seems like an unrelated, if unfortunate bit of trivia until we see that Bihar also has one of the lower retention rates for students in the country. Meghalaya and Mizoram are lagging as well with lower retention rates and 3781 schools lacking toilet facilities for girls out of 7757 schools. This isn’t even an issue primarily based around social niceties; lack of proper sanitation facilities are well known sources of a multitude of diseases like diarrhoea.

In developed countries the disease would be seen as a small nuisance and yet in India it kills around 200,000 children annually. These stats don’t even account for toilets that are dysfunctional. No, these account for absence. This may not be a problem some face, whereas for others it is a daily reality. A teacher punishing you by not permitting your stroll to the loo for the fourth time is a very different thing as compared to there not being a loo in the first place.

This may even be the reason for dropout rates in India, with Mr. Modi himself admitting that in an absence of toilets, girls who enrol in schools don’t stay there for too long. Yet, we mustn’t blame this as the sole factor, considering education rates depend upon a range of sociological and economic factors. Karnataka may be a good example with lower retention rates despite having a mere 12 schools without toilet facilities for girls.

Photo Cedit
Photo Cedit

In any country, admission into the educational system is as important as the retention of students and there is an observable correlation between dropout rates and lags in sanitation. So there is the natural question as to why the hell isn’t it getting fixed? Sexual tolerance and religious debates are one thing, if there is any one issue that should bring a nation together, toilets are that issue. We all seem to need them.

This kind of a break in the “march toward progress” is just another example of how the Covenant may make complete sense on paper and yet in terms of its execution in small isolated regions may not be possible.

Of the four A’s – Accessibility, Availability, Acceptability and Adaptability, the fourth is logistically the most important. In a country with a population that increasingly vies for a standard of living primarily dictated by western norms, the education format does little to gear children vocationally despite an overly crowded job market. Education focusing on academic achievement might still be justifiable in urban areas, it should be far more focussed in their rural counterparts so as to provide a good standard of living for all citizens, prevent overcrowding in urban regions and finally demolish the existing urban-rural binary.

Even in the case at hand – the idea of municipal disposal of waste may be a good one in Indian cities, however, in areas with a lack of infrastructure or even water, environmental friendly toilets could be constructed that don’t even need water for waste disposal and also produce compost as a by-product.

Most of these are constructed above ground and require very little maintenance post initial cost. Not only would this reduce excessive reliance on water, it can help in creating small self-sustaining agricultural ventures in schools, thus marking their independence.

An overreliance on “advanced” urban technology might be the reason for the failure of sanitation attempts in these schools considering they have to negotiate around far more variables than their urban counterparts.

In 2014, The Andhra Pradesh Government said before a Supreme Court that although provisions were being made, they would need more time because of a lack of water facilities and pitfalls in construction. Even though the bench didn’t find this explanation satisfactory, perhaps, for once, the states were on to something, albeit probably unintentionally.

Thus, prior to a pursuit of a universal provision of education, there has to be a ground level inspection and a far greater chunk of money allotted to the staff, both teaching and non-teaching if such government obligations are to be fruitful. That is something that private endeavours like TFI have managed to understand. A right to education unless backed by a sound understanding of the logistical and curriculum based adjustments required in almost every unit of its functioning will be at best, superficial.

Oxfam’s #HaqBantaHai campaign aims to give a clear message to the Union Government and the Education Ministry to take action on RTE and provide millions of children their fundamental right of education.

Your support is vital. Join us in our efforts to foster an atmosphere where every child can have their ‘Haq’ (right) of education. Do sign the petition here or give a missed call to 09266605000 to share your support.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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