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Toilet – Yes! Use – No. Sunita Narain Flushes Out The Truth About The PM’s Promise

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By Sunita Narain

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth. 

Last August 15, speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the prime minister made a very important announcement—his government would ensure “there is no school in India without separate toilets for boys and girls” by the next Independence Day. Exactly one year later, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has announced that this target has been met and that some 417,000 toilets have been built in 261,000 schools.

toilets schools

This is no mean achievement, especially given the dire urgency and importance of this task. The fact is that lack of sanitation facilities is a reason for high dropout rates in schools—particularly of girls. It is also linked to higher disease burden. It is a basic human need—as basic as eating or breathing—and needs to be secured for human dignity. Most critically, toilets in schools are potential game-changers in society: quite simply, children learn the value of personal hygiene and bring it home.

School toilets are harbingers of tomorrow’s India. So, it must be asked if the target has really been met or is this just about numbers. To know this, the related question is: are the toilets that have been built at this breakneck speed in use? Do they have running water; is there provision for regular cleaning and maintenance? Only then can we boast that the task is done.

The government, while claiming 100 per cent success, says that it has repaired some 151,000 toilets and built the rest anew. On its website, it also explains that if anybody would like to volunteer to build toilets in schools, then it can provide designs. The cost of each toilet ranges from Rs 80,000 to Rs 1,30,000. In addition, it says that a hand pump—in cases where there is no piped water—and water tank will be needed, costing Rs 80,000, and another Rs 20,000 per year will be required for maintenance. The original plan was that corporate India would scale new heights and build these toilets. That has not happened. Private companies have been miserly and public sector undertakings are struggling to meet their school toilet commitments.

Funds however have not been the constraint. The last government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan—a scheme to enforce the right to universal primary education—includes substantial money for civil works to build school infrastructure, including toilets. In February this year, the government extended the provision to include reconstruction of dysfunctional toilets as well. It is also to the credit of the government that it did not lose sight of the importance of this task.

The Prime Minister’s Office, it is said, monitored week-by-week progress. The deadline was clearly on everybody’s mind. My colleagues have calculated that some 2,850 toilets were built each month between August 2014 and March 2015. As the deadline came closer, construction moved to feverish pace. Between April and August this year, some 100,000 toilets were built each month. This, in itself, is not bad. It could be that the government ramped up its capacity; it wanted to ensure it reached its goal.

But it is exactly because of all this that we must ask again: are the toilets functional? Frankly, there is no information about this in any report of the government. But media reportage from across the country suggests there is still a long way to go before we can talk about total sanitation, even in schools. This is not surprising. There is enough data and experience to tell us that just installing the hardware is not sufficient to ensure a toilet’s functionality. The lack of water is a major concern. India’s water programme has seen that even as settlements are ‘reached’ with supply, through hand pumps or wells, the number of unreached settlements goes up. The water dries up, hand pumps get broken and pipes collapse.

Same is the case with sanitation—toilets are built, but either never used or become dysfunctional. More importantly, there is the matter of where the waste goes and how it is treated. So, building a receptacle to collect human excreta is only a small part of access to sanitation.

We know, however, that school toilets are an easier part of the sanitation challenge. Schools have space for building toilets; ownership and control is clear and maintenance can be ensured. However, we still need a plan to make sure it happens. Unless this is done, the ministry cannot say that it has met its target. In fact, what is happening could have the reverse effect. In this past year, toilets have been built using funds allocated to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. But in the Union Budget 2015, money for this scheme has been cut. Now the question is: how do schools plan to maintain these facilities; who will hold them accountable and how will this be reported?

The fear I have is now that the task is shown as completed—it is checked and off the agenda—there will be little attention to the crucial detail that is everything between success and failure—not just a toilet but a working toilet, which is used and cleaned. This is what total sanitation is about. This is the least we can provide to our children.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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