A village in Tamil Nadu realises the necessity of hygiene and sanitation for health and dignity of women

A rural village in South India realizes, day-by-day, the necessity of appropriate hygiene and improved sanitation for the good health of all people and the dignity of women.

Through a maze of winding, curving roads off a main highway in Tamil Nadu, one must travel to reach the small, agrarian village of Muthampatti. This village recently received sanitation (and water) interventions by Gandhigram (an NGO established to empower rural people for positive social and economic change with the support of Mahatma Gandhi), through a program offered in twelve villages with funding provided by Arghyam. They offer hygiene-awareness activities, sanitation (and water) trainings, and furnish low-interest loans for construction of toilets. Around 20 households had toilets before their work in the village, and 30 more households have agreed to construct toilets after their efforts. The remaining 20-plus households in the village are unable to build toilets because of limited space, lack of money, or a general unwillingness. Inadequate sanitation impacts women negatively, but involving women in promotion of appropriate hygiene and improved sanitation helps women, men, and children in numerous ways.

Fields, huts, farmers, goats, women, houses, trains, children, mud roads, temples, streets, churches, men, and schools are seen in all directions. Muthampatti is situated between a wealthier village, a spread of fields, and another settlement over a concrete bridge. People have defecated in the open here for generations. Six years ago, most women used a piece of land with a thicket of bushes for privacy. They were restricted entry to this location after the land was sold. Other village members relieved themselves in neighboring fields, and farmers would yell at them. People eventually began using an empty canal bordering the Scheduled-Caste (SC) section of the village.

The canal is practically the only option left for those without toilets. There are hundreds of people and limited space. A middle-aged woman describes the canal:

“It will be quite disgusting especially during the rainy times, not only will they have [fecal matter] all on their waist... the entire path will be strewn with fecal matter. All the cloth that they use while they have menstrual cycles, all that cloth will be strewn there, as well. It's unhygienic and disgusting and it takes a lot of effort to find somewhere that is not so gross to [defecate].”

Both women and men use the canal. A natural division of women's and men's sides has occurred. This helps protect the privacy of women slightly, but men sometimes use the women's area. “There are men around,” asserts a woman who rents a house from her uncle, “and it's not very nice.” She wakes up at 5:00 am to use the canal before the men rise. Plenty of women visit the canal in the pitch-dark by torchlight. There are instances where women have been bitten by snakes or insects. She says, “It is frightening to go down in the dark.”

The location of the canal near SC habitations increases disease transmission during the rainy season. One family of brothers and sisters remembers the stench from the canal. Amid torrential downpours, water filled with human feces would wash into the pathway in front of their one-room home. A wall was built to protect the dwellings, but illnesses continue to multiply. Ailments like diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, polio, and hepatitis are spread through contaminated fecal matter. The eldest brother said, “We are more aware and we wear [shoes] when we go to defecate, but other people are not aware and they do not wear [shoes].” Nearly the whole village had diarrhea before festival season this year. Women are caretakers of those sick in households. If the elderly, men, or children fall ill, they relinquish income-generating duties to take care of those sick.

To counter hardships – the spread of illnesses and challenges faced by women – from inadequate sanitation, Gandhigram shares knowledge about appropriate hygiene and improved sanitation. They hold street-theater programs on sanitation-related illnesses, difficulties faced by females from poor sanitation, and proper waste-water disposal. They host a variety of trainings on topics including, but not limited to, hand-washing and menstruation hygiene. Gandhigram interacts with groups of women called Self-Help Groups to impart information about appropriate hygiene and improved sanitation. Involvement of women is integral. Women are primary managers of hygiene and sanitation in their homes. It is generally women that raise and care for children, care for elderly, clean bathrooms, and fetch water. When women become more informed, everyone becomes more informed.

Gandhigram is engaged in progressive efforts for hygiene and sanitation, but almost a third of the households in Muthampatti are unable or unwilling to construct toilets. “There's not enough room to build a toilet,” one woman exclaims. Many homes are located down narrow walking paths with minimal clearance between the house next door. Multiple families do not have enough money to build a toilet. Average annual incomes in the village range from Rs 7,000 to Rs 110,000 (150 to 2,350 USD). A few people have a toilet, but refuse to use them. A 'paati' (meaning grandmother in Tamil) declares, “I still practice open defecation, but my daughter and granddaughter use the toilet. I'm not used to it. It's for the younger generation.”

Solutions to barriers preventing individuals in the community from embracing appropriate hygiene and improved sanitation exist. A small number of people in the village would like a community toilet for those without room to build. Several people wonder, “who would keep the community toilet clean.” Gandhigram gives low-interest loans for toilet construction from a revolving fund. These loans help families afford the cost of building toilets typically around Rs 4,000 (86 USD). Women are employed for construction of toilets, and this allows them to earn additional income. General awareness change, for village members who do not want to use toilets because of prevailing notions, is a slower process.

Involving women in this awareness change is key to success for any hygiene or sanitation program. An 'amma' (meaning mother in Tamil) states, “I built it because I have two children. They cannot go to the bathroom outside. My children are educated.” Women should be included in all aspects of hygiene and sanitation programs from planning to management. At the same, women reap substantial benefits from appropriate hygiene and improved sanitation through a reduction of illnesses of family members, having a location to manage menstrual cycles, increased safety from animal bites or sexual assaults encountered while defecating in the open, and a greater sense of dignity gained by using the bathroom in privacy.

If you would like more information about Gandhigram, please use the contact information below.

Address - Gandhigram Trust, Gandhigram, Dindigul District, Tamil Nadu, India, 624302

Phone - 0451-2452326

Website - www.gandhigram.org

E-mail - ggmtrust at sify.com

By Abigail Brown, master's student at Oregon State University and intern at Arghyam in Bangalore, India.


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