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Building Community Toilets cannot counter open defecation in Rural India: WHO

The mere availability of government-built latrines will not end open defecation, we need awareness and education regarding this

Children in slum in India. Wikimedia

Sept 21, 2016: A new World Health Organisation (WHO) report concludes that more than half of the Indian population still “continue to defecate in gutters, behind bushes or in open water bodies, with no dignity or privacy”.

And how are we supposed to cure this?

Proper sanitation is a big threat to our health conditions that India’s politicians have tried tackling since ages. Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), both promised to put an end to open defecation in their 2014 general election manifestos and kept this issue as one of the most important agendas in the election.

PM Narendra Modi, once said during his election campaign, “Toilets first, temples later”.

And the former rural development minister from Congress Jairam Ramesh had also asserted on the fact that, “practising good hygiene is as important as performing good puja” ( the act of worship in Hinduism).

Well, let’s have a look at the government sanitation policy to date for a moment.

Open defecation in India is catastrophic, when done in groups. Wikimedia Commons
Open defecation in India is catastrophic when done in groups. Wikimedia

For the past 15 years, two major campaigns are into action to eradicate the issue of poor sanitation in India: the Total Sanitation Campaign and the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. These two have been trying to improve sanitation predicament across the non-urban areas of India by building both household and community latrines, mentioned riceinstitute.org.

But despite all the efforts, there has been very slight change in our plight regarding open defecation. In fact, from 2001 to 2011, latrine coverage in rural India increased by about one percentage point each year. At this rate, it would take the concerned authorities almost 50 years to eliminate open defecation to an extent, if not completely.

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And hence, continuing with the same plan of action is, therefore, not going to help achieve the government’s goal.

According to riceinstitute.org, a broader matter of concern is public health. The issue of open defecation is catastrophic when practised by groups in close contact with each other. Because India’s population is huge, population density is alarming and growing rapidly hence it is impossible to keep human faeces from crops, wells, food, soil and children’s hands.

The ingested bacteria spread diseases, especially related to the intestine. They cause enteropathy, a chronic illness that prevents the body from absorbing calories and nutrients.

That helps to explain that in spite of rising incomes and better diets, rates of child malnourishment in India has not shown much improve.

UN’s agency for children, the UNICEF has estimated that nearly one-half of Indian children remain malnourished.

Pouring concrete will not solve India’s problems. Leaders and political organisations also need to confront the cultural and archaic reasons responsible for bad sanitation.

Eradicating open defecation from Indian society requires changing minds, not just allocating money to building latrines for people that will either go unused or not be built at all.

Under the current sanitation policy, there is a provision for Information, Education, and Communication, (IEC) but the spending on such activities is restricted to 15 percent of the whole budget signalling that it should be considered secondary to latrine construction.

Consequently, only six per cent of the total sanitation budget has been spent on IEC to date. Instead of capping the IEC budget, the government should be prioritising it, because awareness always helps.

Pieces of evidence show that India must urgently correct its cultural practices, though it is sensitive to say so. Apart from poverty and lack of lavatories, prioritising reasons often cited to explain open defecation in India is the innate cultural norm making the practice socially acceptable in some parts of the society. Researchers found that only a quarter of rural householders understood that washing hands help prevent diarrhoea.

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This suggests that the mere availability of government-built latrines will not end open defecation. The need of the hour is the public campaigns, in schools and in the media, to explain the hygienic and fiscal benefaction of using toilets.

A catchy animated music video put out by UNICEF urges Indians to “take the poo to the loo”. The intention is right, even if the dancing turds will not immediately be to everyone’s taste.

Such campaigns not only mean that government-built latrines will possess a better chance of being used; they would also encourage households to build them for themselves.

– prepared by Arya Sharan of NewsGram. Twitter: @NoOffense9

  • Anubhuti Gupta

    The need for sanitation awareness is not taken up enough in our country although it is equally if not more important than other issues like education and such

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Focus on Menstrual Health Improving Education for Girls in Zambia

Chitentabunga Primary School, in rural Lusaka province, is one of the schools that has received reusable pads to distribute to its students

Menstrual, Health, Zambian
FILE - Girls learn to make sanitary pads from imported water-proof materials in project sponsored by the Malawi NGO, Girls Empowerment Network (VOA / L. Masina) VOA

New health classes and government partnerships with not-for-profits focused on menstrual health are improving education for girls in Zambia.

In 2017, the government announced it would distribute free sanitary pads to girls in some rural and underserved areas. Two years later, menstrual hygiene management classes have been introduced in schools, and partnerships with organizations such as World Vision have brought reusable sanitary pads to rural communities.

Chitentabunga Primary School, in rural Lusaka province, is one of the schools that has received reusable pads to distribute to its students.

Educators at Chitentabunga say the pads have helped reduce absenteeism. In years past, 80 to 100 girls would miss classes at any given time due to menstrual issues across seven schools. Now, just five to 10 girls are out at any given time.

Menstrual, Health, Zambian
In 2017, the government announced it would distribute free sanitary pads to girls in some rural and underserved areas. Pixabay

“We used to have a lot of absenteeism, especially in mature girls, that is, girls that have started their menstrual periods. At a time when they go on their menstrual periods, these girls used to stay away from school,” Tyson Hachilangu, head teacher at Chitentabunga, said.

Girls at the school say the pads have improved their quality of life.

“Before this program was introduced, we used ordinary clothes, which would cause bruises. But now, the school gives us pads, and we also have a special bathroom where girls can go and clean up, in case she soils herself at school,” Choolwe Susu, a pupil at the school, said.

She added that the new resources have reduced the shame and teasing associated with menstruation.

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“Previously, boys used to laugh at girls who soil themselves at school, and this used to [cause] girls on menses to stay away from school. But now we can come to school, even on menses, because menstruation is normal for women, and without it there would be no humanity,” she said.

The program has also helped teach girls about pads, and schools have instituted policies to give girls space to practice proper hygiene.

“We are taught about pads. There are two types of pads. A pad is one that you wear with a pant, while a padden is one you wear without a pant. And if you spoil yourself, you have the right to tell your teacher, who will give you a pad, water and soap to clean yourself in the special bathroom,” Cnythia Choono, another pupil at Chitentabunga, said.

Zambia’s president, Edgar Lungu, told VOA the country intends to keep advocating for girls. “We want to cut down on early marriages,” he said. “We went to avoid maternal death.”

Menstrual, Health, Zambian
Two years later, menstrual hygiene management classes have been introduced in schools, and partnerships with organizations such as World Vision. Pixabay

So far, partnerships like the one with World Vision that brought interventions to Chitentabunga appear to be working. That could become a model for similar kinds of real-world impacts.

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“We have a responsibility to work with members of the community,” Lungu said. (VOA)