Fatehpur: In the numerous villages that dot the Hasba block of Fatehpur district in central Uttar Pradesh, the wee hours of the morning are a time for frantic activity. Across caste and class lines, women come out of their homes and head to the nearby fields to relieve themselves. If anyone tries to trouble them or an animal attacks, they stand up for each other. They are neither friends nor relatives, and, in fact, in the light of day, most would never even share water with each other, yet, this one chore binds them all. Misery loves company and these women are a living proof of that.

“We are scared of going out alone. Though having a toilet at home is such a necessity the male members of our families would never waste money building one,” confesses Sita Devi, who belongs to the Paswan community of Usraina West Village. She has been married for 12 years now and covers her face with a ‘ghoonghat’ (veil) all the time. “This is one daily ritual that binds us all. At least they are of help when there are criminals or snakes around,” she adds.

Although the central government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, an ambitious version of the previous regime’s Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, promises to make all gram panchayats open defecation free (GPOD) in the next five years, it’s going to be a tough task, especially considering the high levels of poverty and illiteracy as well as prevalence of traditional beliefs that do not allow for the construction of toilets within the premises of the home. Swachh Bharat proposes to cover all rural households with individual household latrines (IHHLs), cluster toilets, community toilets, school and anganwadi toilets and solid liquid waste management activities in all Gram Panchayats across the country by 2019, a deadline set to mark the 150th birth anniversary of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi. The mission intends to create enhanced demand and convergent action with the support of various agencies working on stimulating behavioural change in people through Information, Education, Communication (IEC) and interpersonal communication. The allocation of funds for building toilets has been raised from the earlier Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 to specifically address issues of water availability, storing, hand washing and cleaning of toilets. Social habits, however, stand as the ultimate hurdle.

“For generations, women from all castes have gotten together for this ‘chore’ that has to be finished at a certain hour. Lots need to be done before everyone in my village is aware of their right to a proper toilet,” says Amba Devi, 36, who is the only woman in Usraina West to have finished her schooling before getting married some 20 years ago. Amba stands taller than others in the village for two reasons. First, she hails from Mumbai and is the most educated among her peers, and second, she belongs to the Chaurasia community, considered to be a higher caste. The Chaurasias cultivate and sell betel leaves for a living. She remarks, “We could never get our daughters married with people from other castes. That is not our culture. Nor can we drink water from the same tubewell. But when it comes to relieving ourselves we have no other option and stand together with women of all communities.”

Even before the men of the family can wake up, the women folk are through with their ‘excursion’. The Paswan, Lodh, Maurya, Chaurasia, Fakir and Muslim women move together for their own safety. “It’s quite dark at that hour and we simply cannot go alone. We desperately need toilets at home. Just imagine what happens when a woman has a stomach upset or she is menstruating. She is forced to go to the fields during the day, which is not allowed,” shares Sapna, 15, who studies at the local government girls’ school at Usraina East village. Just a few months back, a toilet was built at school and today, she makes it a point to use it before coming home.

Even though awareness around using a toilet is low in these parts, which chiefly contributes to the poor coverage here, Amba and Sapna share one more valid concern. “It would be good to have a toilet at home but I am not sure who will have the right to use it first. Usually, women are expected to place the needs of men above their own. Moreover, not only is water scarce, but also who would clean them up. Once again, it’s a caste thing,” observes Sapna.

Adds Amba, “I think women will have to wait till the males use the toilet. They always have had priority; it’s been like that for ages. To defy it right away is going to be virtually impossible. Even today, a woman, who is expected to stay in a ‘ghoonghat’ all day is not able to discuss an issue as personal as a toilet with the men of the family.”

It’s not as if there are no toilets in and around the hamlets of Usraina East and West. But, according to Babulal, 26, a social activist-volunteer from the Paswan community, who has worked on several government projects, the few that have been built are merely symbolic. “There are some Sulabh style toilets here but there are just too many people to use them. Besides, with negligible supply of water, it is difficult to maintain them. Some non-government organisations have also constructed toilets, but then people do not want them made inside their homes. Availability of land is another big factor.”

Maneeshee Kumar, Programme Manager, World Vision, an international non-profit that developed 164 toilets in the area this year, admits to facing challenges on the ground. “For us, each toilet costs Rs 19,100 and to increase community ownership we encourage families to share the cost with a Rs 1,000 contribution. Even so, land entitlements, gender discrimination and age-old customary practices make things difficult,” she says. In a bid to integrate its sanitation efforts with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, World Vision has partnered with Sulabh International to build toilets in remote villages.

The toilets being built under the public private partnership (PPP) model are Sulabh style with underground compartments. The waste that collects in them is converted to compost after three-four years and newer ones have to be fitted – that is added investment. With scarcity of water an ever-increasing reality, maintenance of the few existing toilets is another big cause for concern. Puja, a new bride in Usraina West, says, “It is a complex problem. For total sanitation, there’s need for a new social attitude, more water and adequate land. Many households do not qualify for building individual toilets because they don’t have enough land. One thing I have noticed here is that elders keep the few toilets that have been built locked up to discourage children from using them frequently. And, it is the men who get to use them while women have to go out in the open.”

The outspoken and articulate Amba Devi has the last word, “Unless the right to a toilet is considered to be as vital as health and human right, nothing much can be achieved. We need them like we need health centres and hospitals.”

(Women's Feature Service)