February 20, 2019

'TOILET – EK KATHA' of Women's Empowerment

Toilet built through the Gruh Finance Grant

Women are disproportionately disadvantaged among India's poor—yet incredibly effective at creating change in their communities. The Self-Help Group movement has been very effective in sparking powerful transformations in women helping them overcome their inhibitions and societal norms imposed on them to become powerful voices and keen representatives for their communities' rights and aspirations.

Here is a story of one such women's federation in Chandrapur district, Maharashtra set up in 2009, - The 'Ekata Mahila Swayam Sahayata Sanstha'.  In the initial years, getting women together into Self-Help Groups, however, proved to be a very daunting task. Women, who had never taken on a role outside their homes, found it difficult to now accept another woman as their leader.  Distances between villages, the inability and unwillingness to collaborate with each other were just some of the many impediments faced by ACF in getting these women together. By 2014, the federation had grown considerably in the numbers of women SHG's affiliated to it. The year 2014 also saw the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin (SBM(G)) which aimed to create an open defecation-free (ODF) India, by providing access to toilets for all. 

Whilst the federation made progress on some women's issues in the Rajura &Korpana blocks, among the most backward blocks of Chandrapur, the villages in these blocks were an ugly sight - a mere 20% of the population in the district, had any access to a basic toilet facility; and of this minuscule toilet population, less than 10 %  were usable. Open defecation was accepted as a way of life as the villagers were just too poor to construct toilets. The women suffered the most due to lack of sanitation; it was detrimental not only to their health but also to their education, dignity, community status, and overall well-being. Without access to basic sanitation, the women of Chandrapur waited for nightfall and an empty field in order to defecate in private, risking physical and sexual assault.

Toilets arguably is one of the most crucial levers of women empowerment in the history of mankind. A 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research paper states, 'There was no more important event that liberated women more than the invention of running water and indoor plumbing.' Ambuja Cement Foundation recognized this very early on and had been actively working with the federation, since its inception, to create awareness of providing improved sanitation and enabling them access to government grants for the same.

Seeing the growth of the federation and confidence of the women, Gruh Finance stepped in as a funding partner to support toilet construction. A grant was made to set up a revolving fund to provide loans at a nominal rate of interest to build toilets. The target was challenging, but one that the women were equal to, taking the lead on making their villages open defecation free. The federation members took responsibility for constructing toilets in their homes first, thus motivating and paving the way for others to do so.  By 2018, the Federation had revolved the grant more than twice over, as the total value of work achieved on the ground is more than double the initial fund value. Nearly, 95% of the toilet construction target has been achieved thus far and is expected to be completed in March this year. The revolving fund will now remain vested with the federation to provide loans for income generation activities for the women, renovation of huts into pakka structures and construction of roof rainwater harvesting structures. The federation has since grown into a network of 154 SHG's affiliated and a total membership of approx. 1848, making it a potent force for good. 

The women of 'Ekata Mahila Swayam Sahayata Sanstha' have now become role models for women across the district, so much so that the District Administration under the Swachh Bharat Mission selected 17 federation members as Sanitation Ambassadors for the district. A study by the International Water and Sanitation Centre found from studying 88 water and sanitation projects in 15 countries that projects including the full participation of women are more effective and sustainable than those that are not. Women federation members actively participate in Gram Sabha and other Panchayati Raj institutional meetings, taking the lead on several other issues and increasing women participation in community-level decision making.

India's sanitation revolution, in the hinterlands of the country, led by its women, has become much more than about A Swachh Bharat.  It is a much larger, yet quiet and very powerful feminist movement of empowerment. It is about the women of this country no longer accepting being the victims to now taking the lead on, and, solving issues that impact them the most.

February 20, 2019

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