PURI: Every time Kabita Nayak, 47, sees the government-sponsored Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan advertisement on her small television set, where Hindi Film actor Vidya Balan, the celebrity face of the campaign, is praising a woman who fought for her right to get a toilet constructed in her home, she can not only identify with her but also feels pleased that women across the country are standing up to secure their right to sanitation.

“Anytime I hear of a woman raising her voice, be it is against domestic violence, dowry, livelihood or sanitation, it makes me really happy. But I am particularly close to the cause of sanitation because I have felt the shame of having to go out to relieve myself in the open fields. It is one of the most degrading realities of an Indian woman’s life,” says the homemaker who has fought against open defecation for the better part of her married life.

Around 28 years ago, when Nayak, all of 16, was married off to Ganesh of Sagada village in Nimpada block of Puri district in Odisha, this daughter of a government servant who had always lived in towns, tried to be okay with the idea of starting her new life in a small rural hamlet. But when, on the very next day of her wedding, a few local women came to her doorstep early in the morning to ask her to come with them for open defecation she was taken aback. She couldn’t believe that her in-laws did not have a toilet at home. “Although I came from a traditional home and my marriage had been fixed the moment I finished my matriculation – being the eldest girl in the family my grandmother felt that it was the best course of action to take – at least I never had to face the indignity of relieving myself in the open. Due to my father’s job my family had always stayed in government quarters where toilets are inbuilt. So imagine my shock and horror at being informed that from then on I was to answer nature’s call outside the house,” she recalls.

Bitterly disappointed with her fate, for the next four days Nayak refused to eat a morsel and made up her mind to go back to her parents’ home if her husband did not agree to get a toilet constructed within their premises right away. But her new family didn’t understand her demand and her neighbours mocked her by calling her a “foreign daughter-in-law”. Nayak left her marital home for a few weeks. “Although my parents had no problem with my being there – my father was in fact quite taken aback to know that there was no toilet in my husband’s home – others in my extended family did not take too kindly to my abrupt return. So I decided that instead of running away from the situation I would go back and try to talk to everyone about the problems that arise from open defecation. I felt that once women knew how much simpler and healthier their life would become with a toilet in their home they would definitely support me,” she narrates.

With this plan in mind Nayak made her way back to Sagada a few weeks later. Initially, however, when she tried to reason with her in-laws and husband they simply couldn’t understand her seemingly “unnecessary demand” because “it was not our culture to make a toilet within the living quarters”. Even as she faced numerous difficulties as she was forced to relieve herself in the open – “from insect bites that were a regular occurrence to once getting a severe snake bite I have had to go through it all” – her request was completely sidelined. “I remember one night it was raining heavily and I had to go in emergency. I slipped and was badly injured. That’s when I felt enough was enough. I decided to start talking to the village women about the merits of having their own toilet. I thought lets tackle the problem from the outside and then maybe it would have a positive impact in my household too,” she elaborates.

This was in the early 1990s and there was a non government organisation working in Sagada on securing agricultural rights of the locals. So Nayak decided to approach them for assistance in creating awareness on the importance of sanitation and hygiene. But that attempt did not work out. For the next few years, the determined woman brought up this matter at every public meeting in the village. Moreover, whenever she saw a group of women sitting together she would start off with her toilet talk. Yet, all her concerted efforts bore no fruit.

Then all of sudden things changed for the better. And it all started with her father giving her some money to buy a small piece of agricultural land. “I told my husband and father-in-law that I wanted to use the cash to construct a toilet and much to my surprise they did not raise any objection. I still remember the year was 1996 and I had spent a decade trying to make them see merit in my arguments,” she says.

When Nayak started work on building the toilet there was a lot of curiosity in the village. People would drop in to see what was being done. “Once the toilet was complete, other women in Sagada came over as they had never seen one in their life. Then they asked me how it was used and I told them. I noticed that the younger generation was quite excited at the possibility of getting a toilet. They were school-going and understood the need for it in maintaining clean surroundings,” she says.

Even today there are thousands of girls and women in rural Odisha who do not have access to a toilet. Open defecation makes them vulnerable to not just several infections but they are also at risk of getting snake bites. Their troubles are compounded during the monsoon months when the rains fall incessantly. “Of course, the one fall out that no one talks about but everyone fears and faces is the threat of sexual assault and violence. Young girls in particular complain of this but it was not discussed openly,” reveals Nayak.

From 2007 onwards she intensified her efforts. She showed women how her life was better thanks to a toilet at home and linked the issue to health and security to make her point. Amidst the many challenges that came her way was going into the Dalit basti of Sagada to persuade them to change their ways. “When I made up my mind to speak to the dalit community the upper caste women became very upset. But I follow my instincts and never back down if I know I am doing the right thing. Though it took some time I established a connect with them. I am happy that they too have built toilets in their homes.”

Working on changing people’s perceptions towards their own hygiene and well-being has been tremendously satisfying for Nayak. Today, every one of the 800 households in Sagada has at least one toilet each for women and men! In addition, they are also recycling the waste water as advised by Nayak. “Every week, there is a meeting held in the ‘kothaghara’ (hall) where all the women sit together to talk about health issues. I have told them about creating kitchen gardens and planting banana and papaya trees near the septic tanks in the home and they aid in extracting the water out of the waste,” she informs.

Ultimately, for Nayak toilets signify dignity for women. “I tell everyone that if you respect women and want to show them you care then get a toilet constructed,” she concludes.

( Women's Feature Service)