Six districts, 800 toilet crusaders: Meet Tamil Nadu's sanitation brigade

The attitude of men towards sanitation has been a roadblock for women’s health.Despite this, the Swachhata Dhoots in rural Tamil Nadu are building one toilet at a time. 
The Sanitation Brigade visits houses every day to convince people to not defecate in the open | EPS
The Sanitation Brigade visits houses every day to convince people to not defecate in the open | EPS

CHENNAI: Even as people around the globe celebrated Women’s Day with great pomp and style, there were millions of other women who continued with their routine without a pause…those who work tirelessly towards making a better life. Recently the focus by both the central Government and our film fraternity has been on the issue of women’s health and menstrual hygiene. Women across India were relieved that an issue that has been long plagued is now considered seriously. While focus on menstrual hygiene is a must, something more elementary that needed definite attention was toilets.

Construction of toilets is an aspect under the Government’s Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin. However making an announcement on total sanitation and randomly building toilets does not necessarily translate into universal usage of those toilets. At the end of the day, it implies that one has to let go of the old mindset, and closely held attitudes. There are women in rural Tamil Nadu who are quietly working within these cultural boundaries seldom realising the spiraling positive impact it’ll have on people around them.  

Maheshwari (37) from Billanakuppam village, Krishnagiri District, Tamil Nadu, along with her six cohorts visit the households in her village on the construction and usage of toilets, every day. She is one among the 800 women from different self-help groups in villages across Tamil Nadu ushering in change in a befitting manner. Public Affairs Centre (PAC), a not for profit think tank recently assessed the implementation of the Swachh Bharat Mission–Gramin programme in six districts of Tamil Nadu and found that women here were effective footsoldiers in India’s quest for total sanitation.

These women overcame their initial reticence to speak about the problems of open defecation — especially the inconvenience caused during menstruation — when they realised that solutions can be found at close quarters with some effort and investment — both time and money. Convincing women to construct a household toilet was difficult for the volunteers from the Sanitation Brigade. But Maheshwari says that getting men to start using the toilet was perhaps even more challenging. Attitudinal aspects towards toilet usage also have a gender dimension to it unfortunately.

In most cases men are the decision makers as far as investing in constructing a toilet is concerned, which is why the role that Maheshwari and her associates play is important. Women once convinced of the safety and dignity connected with a household toilet often become the catalysts towards building one for their homes.

Interestingly, the Sanitation Brigade soon came upon the problem of convincing men to use toilets.  However, ensuring that male members use the toilets at home took some convincing. Devaki, another Village Poverty Reduction Committee (VPRC) and Sanitation Brigade member revealed that many men preferred to bathe in their household toilets and preferred the fields to defecate. The brigade eventually convinced the men to change their habits by talking tio them.

So, while Government agencies are engaged in crunching of data connected with the actual number of toilets built, women across the villages of Tamil Nadu are taking the onus upon themselves by transforming into Swachhata Dhoots (Cleanliness Ambassadors) and leading the fight against open defecation in their own way. The manner in which they operate is also simple — lead by example. The Swachhata Dhoots have not only constructed toilets but also use them, and therefore are very enthusiastic about their usage. I quote a popular saying from late UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “If you want something said, ask a man, if you want something done, ask a woman.” The line aptly fits the context of how many women like Maheshwari and Devaki are making a difference to the Government of India’s flagship programme by leading from the front.

(The writer is a program manager — Policy Engagement and Communication, Public Affairs Centre, a not for profit think tank)

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