Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Toilets: teaching is better than talking!

Sometime in April, I met Roopa, an extraordinary young woman, in a village called Nagenhalli in south-west India. She was smart, friendly, warm and very pretty. But what made me call her extraordinary is this: the woman had built a toilet, all by herself.

Roopa's toilet
Now, before I tell you how she built the toilet, let me share the 'why':

Roopa is a Dalit and her mother is a former temple sex slave. All the men from her village wanted Roopa to also become a sex slave and, as she reached puberty, they began to look at her with lust. So, one day Roopa's mother ran away to another village miles away from her  own, taking along her 6 children.

But in their new village, women and girls were often sexually harassed and assaulted by men from
'higher castes'. Most of these assaults took place when girls and women went to relieve themselves in the open.
Some of these men also took nude pictures of the women. In short, Roopa escaped sexual slavery by leaving her mother's village, but now faced this new challenge of  sexual violence.

After spending many months in fear, Roopa decided to have a toilet of her own. "We were always looked down upon because of our caste and my mother's profession. I thought, "if  I were raped one day, nobody would even care." Roopa told me.

But building a toilet needs about 15-20,000 rupees and Roopa's mother didn't have that kind of money. Luckily, Roopa had a small job in a local NGO called Sakhi Trust and one day, she asked her boss if she could take a loan. To her surprise, not only the boss agreed to loan her the money, but also arranged a training workshop where the entire village learned how to build a toilet, brick by brick.

Roopa and her mother recall the harrowing days when they went to the bush and braved sexual violence every day.

Now this is an NGO so small, it doesn't even have an online presence. But their vision certainly shadows their size. Instead of constantly preaching the villagers to stop open defecation, the NGO teaches rural youths of water, sanitation and hygiene, including how to build a toilet.This is a  wonderfully pragmatic idea that can help anyone just go, start!

This is exactly what Roopa did: she made a list of the materials that she would need and went to Hospet (the nearest town) to shop: bags of cement, 1500 bricks, sand, pvc pipes, sanitary ware like a toilet seat, iron rods and panels of tin. And once all of these at hand, she began to build her toilet, with some help from her mother and her 5 younger siblings. She explained to me a little of the process:

"We dug the ground to build a 5-feet deep septic tank with brick and mortar. About 2 feet away, we dug a shallow pit about 10 inch deep. This was for our toilet seat. First, we laid the toilet sat, then, built a small platform around it. Then we took a PVC pipe, connected one end of it to the septic tank and the other to the toilet seat. We attached another PVC pipe to the tank to let out the gas. We created a mold with iron rods and poured mortar into it to build a lid for the septic tank. Finally, we built walls around the toilet and a tin roof over it."
Roopa's neighbors, who worship these stone feet as a deity, discouraged her from building  a toilet so close to the "holy place", but she ignored it. "would they protect me from rape? she asked - power to voice that comes with youth!

Once the toilet was done, Roopa also decided to have a bathroom. So, she built half a wall inside the room, separating the area with the toilet seat from the washing space. As there is no tap water at her home, a bucket is kept inside. "We carry the he water form the village bore well," she said.

It took Roopa about 2 months and 16 thousand rupees ($250) to build the toilet and the bathroom. She later received a check of 8,000 rupees ($125) from the government - subsidy amount that the government provides to help Indians have their own toilet with relative ease.  The amount won't help Roopa repay the entire loan she took, yet she is happy. In her own words :"we feel safe and everyone looks at us with respect because we are the first to have an individual toilet"

A few weeks later, I met Ramvati- a young widow in Bakud - a village in central India who had survived years of sexual abuse by her father in law. Recently, she left the in-laws' place and built her own house. But she still went for open defecation which made her very vulnerable to sexual assaults. I asked her why she didn't build a toilet.
Roopa and Ramvati. One is safe and respected by her community, the other wishes she knew how to build a toilet.

"I don't have enough land to build a toilet (she meant a pit latrine) outside the house and I didn't know how to build one (with a septic tank) inside my house," she said.

I thought of Roopa and the NGO that had taught her how to build a toilet. How many young women like her would benefit in this country if a toilet-building training was made available to them?

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