Debate: The Sanitation and Ghoonghat Campaign Actually Empowers Women

At a meeting in Himmatsar panchayat, Nokha Block to spread the sanitation meeting in 2013. Himmatsar became one of the earliest ODF panchayats after this meeting.

At a meeting in Himmatsar panchayat, Nokha Block to spread the sanitation meeting in 2013. Himmatsar became one of the earliest ODF panchayats after this meeting.

The article, “Why Using Patriarchal Messaging to Promote Toilets is a Bad Idea”, by Aashish Gupta and Nikhil Srivastav has not only misread the intent of the communication messages used to promote sanitation in rural Rajasthan by isolating a single message from many, but also has fundamental flaws in understanding issues relating to women in rural Rajasthan.

As someone associated with the Swacch Bharat Mission during  my tenure as District Collector, Bikaner, I believe the sanitation campaigns that used the ghoonghat message actually help women and arguably empower them to gain voice to address their basic issues in a patriarchal society.

First of all, the simplistic interpretation of the message, “Maa, ghar mein ghoonghat hai tera saathi, fir kyun shauch khule mein jaati” (“Mother, when you cover your head inside the house, how come you go in the open to defecate”) as promotion of the ghoonghat – the veil or scarf women use to cover their head and face – is flawed. As Somya Seturaman rightly argues, the message actually highlights the misplaced association of women’s dignity with the ghoonghat. In other words, it reminds the community that women’s real issues need to be addressed for their dignity, whereas the archaic practice of the ghoonghat does not help. Also the authors could not quote any data showing a change in ghoonghat usage because of these messages. The data merely compares ghoonghat usage in Rajasthan with other states, that too from a period before the use of these messages.

More importantly, women face many more serious and compelling issues in rural Rajasthan than just the ghoonghat itself and what it represents. If you lived the life of a rural Rajasthani woman, the issue of the highly visible ghoonghat would not be as disturbing as graver situations such as domestic violence, lack of voice and decision-making power in the family, lack of roles in economic activities, limited access to healthcare and education, lack of adequate maternal care, lack of access to nutrient rich food and holding calls of nature till dark and associated health issues. So it does not make sense to relate women’s empowerment only with the ghoonghat. One may argue that ghoonghat is the proxy indicator of patriarchy, but the fact is that even those women who do not wear the ghoonghat face many such problems. There are better and rational indicators of women’s empowerment in global literature; many of those show improvement because of the sanitation campaigns.

Helpful to women

In my experience, the sanitation campaign has actually helped women in many ways. First, decision makers started discussing women specific issues at public forums thanks to the campaign. Over the last five years, as a District Magistrate in Bundi and Bikaner, I have attended more than 300 ratri choupals and public hearings where rural issues and problems were discussed and I can endorse the claim that it was only because of the so-called ‘patriarchal sanitation messages’ that decision makers at the gram panchayat level started to discuss issues relating to women. I have also noted that the participation of women in such meetings where their issues are discussed has improved drastically.

Women mason groups building toilets in Lunkaransar Block in Bikaner.

Women mason groups building toilets in Lunkaransar Block in Bikaner.

During the campaign, women themselves started raising and asserting the priority of their issues. The sarpanch of Kolayat Mangesh Kanwar raised the issue of access to toilets for women first in a gram panchayat meeting. She later began to speak about it before other public representatives as well. As she herself mentions, “Before the sanitation campaign, women faced issues relating to going out to defecate in the open which got exacerbated especially post pregnancy. Despite being a woman and a public representative even I did not talk about these things. But now I feel that we must discuss these problems especially in front of the men if we need some solutions.” Mangesh Kanwar is not alone. Many women sarpanchs spearheaded the campaign to build toilets in Bikaner and began to openly discuss the problems arising out of a lack of access to toilets. In some cases, they started discussing issues other than sanitation, such as immunisation and availability of drinking water too. Sanitation campaigns have indeed given women a voice.

The campaign encouraged women to start taking decisions such as location of toilets in the houses. If it was not for the so-called patriarchal message, no one would have consulted women before constructing a toilet. In Kolayat panchayat, around 400 toilets were built in a matter of a few days after a meeting held by the sarpanch brought the discourse of toilets to the women.

Many women are now answering nature’s call without worrying about their dignity or waiting for darkness. In my interactions with the women of rural Bikaner, the one constant and painful theme that was repeated across village after village irrespective of caste or age was the agony and pain each woman experiences while stepping out under the cover of darkness to defecate. “If we see someone from the family, a village elder or the headlights of a vehicle we stand up until they pass” was an oft repeated story before the Banko Bikano campaign brought them access to toilets.

Good for men and women

It is also important to note that the campaigns in Rajasthan have improved toilet usage by both men and women. Aashish Gupta and Nikhil Srivastav could not highlight any evidence that shows that chances of men using toilets are less if such messages are used. Also, they seem to have assumed that these are the sole messages being used to promote the use of toilets, whereas the referred campaigns focus on creating Open Defecation Free (ODF) villages which entail toilet usage by all men, women and children. There are messages and communication tools that link the themes of dignity of men, the pride of households as well as the village. The campaigns in fact reward Gram Panchayats that achieve ODF status, which envisages usage by all. In fact many villages formed nigarani samitis (watch committees) to stop men and women from defecating in the open. The whole focus in the sanitation campaign, therefore, was not just on building toilets but equally on ensuring their usage by both men and women.

Inclusive Messages painted on the walls in Bikaner villages

Inclusive Messages painted on the walls in Bikaner villages

Currently there is no valid evidence to prove that the messages used in the course of the sanitation campaigns in Rajasthan have a regressive impact on women’s empowerment or promote patriarchy. On the other hand there are ample anecdotes that made me realise these messages in particular and the sanitation campaign in general, not only empower women but also promote toilet use by both men and women.

Arti Dogra is an IAS officer of the Rajasthan Cadre. She has been associated with the Swacch Bharat Mission in her tenure as District Collector, Bikaner. The views expressed in this article are her own.

Categories: Gender, Health

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