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Sanitation campaign galvanises villagers

K. Raju
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Issue addressed from a different perspective

Women SHGs interacting with rural women at Gandhigram near Dindigul.
Women SHGs interacting with rural women at Gandhigram near Dindigul.

The introduction of toilets has revolutionised the lives of women, young mothers and adolescent girls in 19 villages in Thoppampatti, Gandhigram, Ambathurai, Kamalapuram and Pachamalaiyankottai panchayats.

Around 90 per cent of 2,982 households in these panchayats, with 12,262 houses, now have toilet facilities.

The main hurdle in getting to that point was ignorance. “After regular interaction with local women, we found that lack of knowledge of personal hygiene and paucity of funds were key factors in the past,” said L. Ramuthai, sanitation project coordinator.

Awareness building, motivation and rapport created by women SHG teams in target villages changed the mindset of rural women to a great extent, but fell short of achieving the objectives. Many people thought building toilets was a wasteful investment.

Things changed when volunteers targeted adolescent girls and educated them on the adverse effects of open defecation. They did not stop with motivation. Toilets were constructed, and existing toilets in government primary schools refurbished. Water facilities were provided.

Schoolchildren were encouraged to use toilets regularly. Parent-Teacher Associations were roped in to back the campaign.

“The partnership with students had a great impact. Girls became the ambassadors of the sanitation campaign. The toughest challenge turned into an easy task. The young ones convinced their elders, making our job easier,” said T. Padma Priya, a field staff.

“My children are reluctant to defecate in the open. They insist on using toilets. How can I deny them the facility? So I constructed a toilet,” says Kulandai Terasa Ammal of Panjampatti.

Meanwhile, women SHGs in every target village went from door-to-door to persuade owners to construct toilets.

The cooperation and the panchyat administration also played a vital role in reaching out to a wider audience.

But the Gandhigram panchayat adopted a novel strategy to stop open defecation.

“Women at Samiyarpatti were using the open area near the railway track. No force was used to stop them. We simply bulldozed the entire area and made it clean and green. Cement benches and chairs were arranged in the open land,” recalls panchayat president T. Jayaraman. Now village youth use the place as a promenade between 5.30 a.m. and 9.30 a.m. daily. This has kept the women from using the area around the railway track and forced them to construct toilets.

Now women and children from the village have been permanently weaned away from bad toilet practices of the past.

“Women have made latrine use a rule,” a campaigner declared.

Samiyarpatti women expanded their campaign to the neighbouring village. Women there embraced the message of personal hygiene. Strategies differed from village to village.

Sanitation cover has improved from around 15 to 20 per cent in 2010 to 87 per cent in 2013 in these panchayats. The Gandhigram panchayat achieved a success rate of 99 per cent.

The panchayats went a step further. They taught villagers the discipline of prompt payment. Regular payment of water tax helped panchayats maintain water schemes, they learnt.

Thoppampatti, Ambathurai, Kamalapuram and Gandhigram earned Rs.92,430 through water tax in the first quarter of this fiscal.

“We allow the community to speak about their problems. We highlight their health risks and allow them to find solutions on their own. Triggering community participation, modifying the style of functioning of the panchayats and changing the mindset of people who depended on the government for all their needs, were some of the methods adopted for the effective implementation of the sanitation programme,” noted K. Sivakumar, Secretary, Gandhigram Trust.

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