In India, a community works to change sanitation and hygiene practices

By Atul Kumar (UNICEF)
03:34 PM, November 30, 2012

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India, Sanitation, Development

Eleven-year-old Sharda and half a dozen friends beat drums and chant slogans as they walk through the narrow lanes of Lalapur. Their message is: make the remote village in Uttar Pradesh free from open defecation.

“Adopt hygienic practices, say goodbye to diseases” is a loose translation of one of their slogans. Another is “Daughters and mothers not to go to the fields [to defecate], let us protect their dignity [by having toilets]”.

Good practices at an early age

Lalapur is a village of some 760, in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India. The state boasts almost 200 million inhabitants. The majority belong to a socially excluded and marginalized community. A recent government survey showed that less than 36 per cent of households in Uttar Pradesh had toilets, which means that about 130 million people in the state must defecate in the open.

The school that Sharda and his friends attend, a local government primary school, has decided it is critical to introduce good practices of sanitation and hygiene at an early age. The preschool centre within the school compound has a child-friendly toilet, with a ventilated door at eye level. There, the youngest children learn to feel the comfort and security of using toilets. Children of all ages are taught the importance of washing their hands with soap. In turn, they have gone home and asked their families for toilets, and for soap.

“For centuries, people of this region have been defecating in the open. But, now that the children have begun using toilets in schools, the habit is breaking. And, hopefully this will change the practice in future,” says headmaster of Lalapur Upper Primary School Ram Narayan Maurya.

Winds of change in Uttar Pradesh

Change in Lalapur has come from within the community. The villagers have asked for toilets, they have worked for them – and now they monitor their use.

A driving force behind the process of change has been village head Rishikesh Singh. He has found that, through mobilizing women and children, and maintaining continuous dialogue, people welcome the changes to sanitation and hygiene practices. “Today, every house in Lalapur has a toilet and is using it,” says the 45-year-old community leader.

Mr. Singh narrates a bitter truth about life in Lalapur: “People in this hamlet belong to a socially excluded community. There are times when other people don’t allow them to even defecate in their fields. And, with decreasing land, where do they go? It was important for them to make these toilets at home and actually use them.”

Mr. Singh explains that villagers faced many obstacles in the days of open defecation. Women had no choice but to go to the fields before dawn in order to defecate before the men had awoken. There were also concerns of snakes, scorpions and insects.

Fifty-five-year-old Rajwanti Devi has trouble walking. She recalls how she dreaded having to cross long distances to defecate. With a toilet at home, she is no longer bound to uncomfortable trips and can make use of it whenever she wants.

An example that can be replicated in other villages

“The problem of open defecation in Uttar Pradesh is of great magnitude. It has serious implications on the health of children and the environment,” says UNICEF Chief of Field Office in Uttar Pradesh Adele Khudr. She adds, “The success of Lalapur is an excellent example that can be replicated easily in other villages. Stopping open defecation will restore dignity of a community which has been disadvantaged and marginalized for centuries.”

Members of the community say that they use their toilets and that no one defecates in the open anymore. Mr. Singh reports, however, that some have been resistant to change, and that mistakes are sometimes made. “Most people use their toilets. They find it useful. However, there still are some old people who slip up and go out in the open,” he says.

In Lalapur, women no longer have to wait for the cover of darkness to defecate. Community members feel safe, secure and dignified, with access to a toilet in their own homes.

For his part, Sharda and his band have pledged to keep their village free from open defecation, into the future.

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