Monday, 12 October 2009

No toilet, no bride

Women in rural north India are demanding toilets before consenting marriage. The Washington Post reported today about a 'No toilet, no bride' campaign, whereby parents of girls are insisting that their prospective grooms have toilets in their homes. In Haryana state, 1.4 million toilets have been built since 2005. The local government subsidises the costs incurred.

Globally, some 2.6 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation facilities. In India, alone, that number is closer to 700 million, with a greater proportion of Bangladeshis having access than Indians, even though per capita incomes in India are 1.6 times higher. Women are worst affected by this condition, facing a loss of dignity in conjunction with health problems. In addition there is an economic cost in the time spent to walk to a safe place to defecate or to collect water. In 2006 the Human Development Report argued, '[T]he weak voice of women in shaping spending priorities within the household means that the constituency with the strongest expressed demand for sanitation has little control over expenditures...Empowering women may be one of the most successful mechanisms for increasing effective demand.' The ability to say no to a hand in marriage is turning out to be a significant source of such empowerment.

Supported by the Total Sanitation Campaign, in Haryana the idea has caught on in the popular imagination. A radio jingle teases, 'No loo, no "I do"!' Soap operas are using the the campaign for plot lines. And it seems to be having an effect. Christian Science Monitor reported in May that there was at least one case of a woman who divorced her husband for lying that he had a toilet in his house. According to the local representative of Sulabh International (the sanitation advocacy organisation) in the past four years the proportion of rural households in Haryana with a toilet has reached 60% (up from 5%). The Hindu reports that one-third of these toilets have been built by households under the poverty line.

In his autobigraphy, Mahatma Gandhi recounted a meeting in 1896 with the Rajkot Sanitation Committee. At the meeting, members of the 'untouchable' caste voiced their frustration: 'Latrines for us! We go and perform our functions out in the open. Latrines are for you big people.' More than a century later that message is still not heard widely enough but there are signs of change.

1 comment:

srinidhi said...

Thanks for focusing on this basic necessity! I did not know there was a world toilet day!
I hope sanity prevails and more sanitation facilities are built in India, taking cue from Haryana brides!
Could not help smiling at the irony in this statement:"This is a 'hidden' global scandal and it constitutes an affront to human dignity on a massive scale," said Melanie Nakagawa, attorney with the International Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.