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‘Ladies Only’:

A response to nature’s call

Up until five years ago, every monsoon, the little tribal village of Gothangaon in the Nagpur district of Maharashtra would use up the entire stock of diarrhoea and gastroenteritis medication issued to the Adegaon Panchayat (village council) to which it is linked. Since then the number of cases of these two ailments in the village have dropped to nearly zero.

The reason? A block of seven toilets constructed on 150sqft of land. Built at the initiative of the women of the village, the toilets are cleaned, maintained and used only by women. Apart from gastroenteritis and diarrhoea, a host of health problems faced by the women folk have also been solved because of this toilet block.

Gothangaon, with 70 households, had the disadvantage of not having any village commons. Traditionally, such common areas are used as a safe defecation site, apart from other purposes. However, in Gothangaon some 70 years back, ousters from the nearby Bor Dam project were resettled on the common land of the village. Consequently, the village is surrounded on all sides by farms and thick forests.

Predictably, this loss of commons has hit women the hardest. The women and children had to defecate very close to the village; they neither had any privacy, nor could they ensure proper hygiene. As a result, not only did the cases of water-borne diseases go up, the women also began to suffer from hygiene-related afflictions and other problems.

“Every woman in the village used to suffer from constant cramps in the stomach and back,” recalls elderly Bakubai Atram. “It was because we could not defecate when we needed to.”

The situation changed in 2003, when Samata Homoeo Society (SHS) started constructing school toilets in several villages in the area. “We women approached the organisation with our problem,” says Mandabai Salam, president of the SHG cluster in the village, “and asked them if we could have some toilets constructed for women, apart from the school toilets.”

After initial hesitation, Dr NS Sawarkar, president of the society, generated र160,000 for the project by cost-cutting on the school toilets – four of which were also constructed in Gothangaon. However, the biggest problem was the 150sqft piece of land required for the construction of toilets.

Here, Jhingubai Sambhaji Salam, an elderly matriarch, came to the rescue. She donated the required patch of land out of her agricultural land located close to the main street in the village, free of cost. Soon a small complex of seven toilets was constructed on this land for the exclusive use of village women. The toilets were of the same quality as those found in city homes. The money generated by SHS was used to procure construction material, while the villagers contributed labour worth र26,000. Water supply was obtained from the village pipeline, and two tanks – one overhead, and one at the ground level – were constructed to store water.

The next problem was that of maintenance. It was decided that half the women would use the school toilets while the rest would use the toilets on Jhingubai’s land, and contribute a maintenance cost of र5 per family per month. The money would be used to buy cleaning material, buckets and dippers and to carry out minor repair works as and when required. The actual job of cleaning the toilets was to be done in turns by all the women in the village – in groups of five.

So far the system has worked very well. The small monthly fee was soon replaced by the practice of collecting र50 per year per family for the purpose of administrative convenience. It was also decided to keep the toilets locked during the summer months of April and May, when water supply is insufficient for the toilets to run effectively.

The toilet success story is not, however, entirely without its down side. A few months ago, an altercation arose over the use of school toilets, as a few families started to monopolise them by keeping them locked. One morning after a particularly heated exchange, the toilet seats were found broken and two doors wrenched off the hinges. No one knows for sure who did it but the toilets have been locked since then, as there are no funds for the repair work. Today, all women are using the other toilet complex.

A second problem is that since the toilets are available only for women, the men in the village are feeling left out. Some 18 months back, in a ‘gram sabha’ (village council) meeting, the men demanded that two of the seven toilets be reserved for them. The women vocally opposed this proposal. “We can’t have men and women using the same set of toilets,” says Manjula Bai Sarve, “It would create a privacy problem. We insisted that separate toilets should be constructed for men.”

This has not been possible so far because of shortage of both funds and space.

Aparna Pallavi

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