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Attaining ODF Status Is Great, But What About Clean Water And Proper Hygiene For All?

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This post is a part of YKA’s first user-run series, Water Wars, by Zeba Ahsan. Join the conversation by adding a post here.

A country which has been successfully launching satellite missions and getting applauded the world over. A country that is aiming to have bullet trains built with unimaginable facilities. But on the other extreme, she is struggling to build toilets and finding it even more difficult to convince people, especially from the rural front to build one. Using toilets is a basic human right. Building and ‘using’ them is the first step towards making the country ‘open defecation free (ODF)’. But can India be actually ODF certified with so many disparities with such a huge lack of awareness and lack of access to information?

In June 2017, I got the opportunity to attend the third WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) summer school program organized by the Coca Cola Department of Regional Water Studies, TERI University, New Delhi. It was a three-day program with a dynamic group (comprising school students, postgraduate and PhD candidates to officials from the Irrigation department and urban planners from Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chandigarh, Kerala and nearby Delhi-NCR).

The second day of the program was an exhilarating experience as it involved a site visit to one of the unique organizations in the country—the Sulabh International Social Service Organization located at Palam, Delhi. It was founded by Padma Bhushan awardee Dr Bindeshwar Pathak who has worked tirelessly in educating masses about sanitation. He has made a Gandhian vision, and his constructive programs on the restoration of human rights and dignity of scavengers are a mission of his life.

The US National Sanitation Foundation defines sanitation as “the quality of living expressed in clean homes, clean farms, clean neighborhoods and clean community. Being a way of life, it must come from people, nourished as it is by knowledge and it grows as obligation and ideal in human relations.” The deprivation in the living standards includes non-availability of two essential services directly related to sanitation, safe drinking water and health. The organization has been deeply involved in educating the children of sanitation workers by imparting them with the right skills, thus paving the way for wider social inclusion. Their upliftment has provided them with a great sense of security for the future.

The ‘Sulabh Public School’ has done this excellent job of empowering these children through various activities. The school imparts computer literacy classes along with Hindi and English stenography, cutting and tailoring, beauty care, dress designing, and embroidery, to name a few. The best part is the active participation of the Sanitation club of the school, which is involved in educating girls about menstrual hygiene as well as manufacturing their own sanitary napkins. The school has been successful in installing a sanitary napkin vending machine as well as an incinerator to dispose of the used pads. It serves as a great source of inspiration as such facilities are available only in select few schools across the country.

Example of two “ecosan” toilet slabs, a found in a Sulbah’s complex in India. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The best part of the entire day was the visit to the ‘Toilet museum’ located on the premises of the Sulabh organization. It’s very intriguing and holds the title of being the ‘third weirdest museum’ in the world. The museum artifacts are displayed chronologically to show the evolution of toilets starting from the Indus Valley civilization to the present-day space bio-toilets. History says that great wars have been lost due to unhygienic toilet practices, which included open defecation on the sand, resulting in the spread of harmful diseases. There is a delightful tale of a British monarch’s portable toilet when he was out hunting, lined with velvet as a safeguard against the early chill and wind.

The curator of the museum was very enthusiastic in explaining every detail about the various models of toilets being displayed. He rightly mentioned that the idea of this museum was to act as a vehicle of social change through sensitization and awareness among the common man. Outside of the main museum, there was a display of present-day cost-effective toilets. It even talks about the necessity of having child-friendly toilets at home, a thing not many of us were aware of until we saw the models. The organization specifically educates the masses about the advantages of having a Sulabh flush
compost toilet, essentially a twin pit system. Its implementation is necessary as it prevents water pollution—in turn reducing the chances of disease outbreak. The least-cost toilet that could be constructed in villages roughly amounts to ₹2000 with five users and two-year capacity pits.

The entire program was very enlightening and provided the right platform to start with a sanitation movement. Kunwar Bai, a 105-year-old woman from Chhattisgarh, was made the Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan mascot in 2016. She sold off her 8–10 goats to build two toilets at her home and inspired others in her village to do the same. She died at the age of 106. All this boils down to one question: If people like Kunwar Bai can build toilets, despite so many tribulations, then why can’t others? It needs immediate attention as lack of toilets forces women to go out in the jungles early morning to defecate as it becomes a matter of dignity. It is also the reason for the high rate of girl drop-outs from schools.

Let us not forget the recent tragedy where two Dalit boys were killed for defecating in the open. Isn’t access to toilets caste-based and biased? Isn’t accessing toilets still a distant dream for hundreds of thousands of people in our country? Interestingly, it is not just an Indian scenario but a global scenario. Even in the developed world, where there are disturbing trends of ghettoisation, it has been observed that there are extremely poor sanitation conditions with lack of proper WASH facilities.

Poor sanitation and contaminated water are also linked to the transmission of diseases such as cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, and typhoid. Image: Flickr

Ending open defecation has been identified as a priority for reducing global inequalities in WASH. It is explicitly referenced in SDG target 6.2 and closely associated with wider efforts to end extreme poverty by 2030. According to a UNICEF report on the ‘Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (2000-2017)’, child faeces are highly infective. SDG target 6.2 includes an explicit reference to achieving ‘equitable hygiene for all’.

Hygiene comprises a range of behaviours that help to maintain health and prevent the spread of diseases, including handwashing, menstrual hygiene management and food hygiene. The indicator selected for global monitoring of SDG 6.2 is the proportion of the population with a handwashing facility with soap and water, available at home. Poor sanitation and contaminated water are also linked to the transmission of diseases such as cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, and typhoid.

When we are dreaming of ‘leaving no one behind’, it is really important for us to make the world feel uncomfortable with disturbing images and data, so that we work collectively to close this rising gap of inequality and inequity that comes about with the basic human necessity and right, i.e., water.

This post is also a part of YKA's first user-run series, Water Wars, by Zeba Ahsan. Join the conversation by adding a post here.
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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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