Culture

Debate: Sanitation Campaigns in Rural Rajasthan Do Not Promote Patriarchy

Writing on the wall, about Mission Poorn Shakti. Credit: Government of India

Writing on the wall, about Mission Poorn Shakti. Credit: Government of India

Ashish Gupta and Nikhil Shrivastav’s article, “Why Using Patriarchal Messaging to Promote Toilets is a Bad Idea”, is insightful but has misread the intent of the communication messages used to promote toilet use in rural Rajasthan.

They believe that the sanitation messages tied to the practice of wearing ghoonghat/veil by women in rural Rajasthan promote patriarchy, when in reality, these messages have done exactly the opposite – the sanitation campaign in rural Rajasthan has not only reduced open defecation but has also led to the liberation of women in a patriarchal society. Probably, isolating these messages from the holistic sanitation campaign could have caused the confusion.

In several districts of rural Rajasthan, women are at the forefront of the sanitation campaign. The campaign breaks away from the traditional patriarchal system and has empowered women to step out of their homes to demand for their right to safe sanitation.

Ms. Dheeraj Joshi, member of Mission Poorn Shakti – a women-led community service group in Pali district, Rajasthan said that “the sanitation campaign has liberated us. Many of us have left behind our veil to participate in the sanitation campaign that is now being led by women in our village.”

In several districts like Churu, Pali, Bikaner and Bundi, women and children are seen forming human chains at five in the morning in the open fields to drive away people who go out in the open. This is a community-led total sanitation (CLTS) tool that has encouraged women to step out of their homes to fight for a common cause. In Pali, for instance, women form an integral part of the team that conducts the door to door survey for sanitation.

Messages that underline the age-old practice of wearing the veil to emphasize the importance of toilet use may sound a bit odd at first, but they in fact tend to remind rural folks that true dignity doesn’t come from wearing a ghoonghat. It has been observed during the campaign that these messages make villagers take notice of the problem of open defecation more seriously, and pushes them to  think about their flawed sense of pride and dignity

Rural Rajasthan’s sanitation campaign has several other generic level messages though I agree there could be more messages that involve all kinds of toilet users – the women, men including the elderly and the children.

In order to address the problem in an inclusive way, the community-led sanitation approach in Rajasthan clarifies to the people by stating that: “Even if one person in your community doesn’t use a toilet, your community is still going to be unhealthy. The flies will continue to contaminate your water and food.” A practical demonstration of how flies travel from human excreta to their food has pushed many to immediately construct a toilet.

As a result of these campaigns, several men who were earlier going out in the open have now started using a toilet in rural Rajasthan. In many households, men who work as masons elsewhere, end up constructing the toilets in their own household. Agreed that some people would continue to go out in the open and we need to address these challenges as we move forward.

Rajasthan, like many other states in India, has a long way to go before it is completely free of open defecation. But what is important to remember is that the campaign in rural Rajasthan has led to significant improvements in not just toilet use but also the status of a woman in the society. The campaign tries to break away from the patriarchal system by empowering women, who are affected the most by the lack of toilets, to be the agents of change.

Merely stating the prevalent practice of wearing the veil is by no means an endorsement of the same. Sometimes, underlining certain negative aspects of rural life can lead to changes that transcend beyond boundaries of religion, sex and caste to create an equitable and just society. In rural Rajasthan, it has given the strength to the ghoongat-clad woman to speak up for her right.

Somya Sethuraman is a sanitation consultant. She can be reached at somyase@gmail.com.