This week Deepak sent an email around that excited Neha and I a little bit (to say the least!) – there are some women in Bakhel that would like to make bathrooms. Why’s this so exciting?: Here’s an excerpt from a piece that Neha wrote about bathrooms and female privacy and hygiene a few months ago:
Every morning in September was the same: after being startled awake at 5:00 AM, I would pick up the small purple jug, fill it with water at the handpump, and then head out to the fields to “become fresh.” It was time for all the women of the town of Mandwa to go and defecate. In one respect, it was female bonding time; we would nod or say Ram Ram as we passed each other in the near darkness, acknowledging that we were all here for the same communal activity. In most respects though, it was terrible. For the first few weeks, there were mornings when I just didn’t have to go, but I had no other option. Simply put, it was go now, or wait until the next morning. And when stomach problems struck, as they inevitably do during the first few months in rural India, it was excruciatingly awkward, as there was no appropriate place to go during the daytime hours.
She goes on to say:
In Bakhel, and in many of the surrounding villages, women literally have no privacy at all, which turns seemingly normal daily activities into difficult, trying endeavors. Besides restrictions on when and where they can defecate, women also face limitations when showering. There are no closed-off bathing areas in Bakhel, so everyone showers entirely in the open. In my area, breasts are not considered taboo, so women can use soap on the upper-half of their body. But women in Bakhel always shower while wearing their ghaghras, or long skirts, and in many other villages, women shower completely clothed. It is nearly impossible for a woman to properly clean herself if she bathes with clothes on, and feminine hygiene becomes even more of a problem during menstruation. A menstruating woman can only try to become clean in the dark of night, secretly washing her menstrual cloth when no one is looking.
Due to this lack of privacy, women’s health is greatly affected. A woman in Bakhel might not seek treatment for diarrhea, or will try to deny she even has it, because a woman should not be seen going to the bathroom outside the specified night hours. She might develop a urinary tract infection or vaginal infection from insufficient hygiene, but feel too embarrassed to acknowledge it until it is incredibly serious. She might not even know she has an infection, because a typical woman in Bakhel has never seen herself naked- she has no idea what looks healthy for her body, and what it looks like when something has gone wrong. She will silently suffer, rarely consulting with others, and just accepting it as the norm for her life.
One step to dealing with this is to build latrines near women’s houses/ a latrine for each home. But one cannot simply just go ahead and build and expect people to use it, even with “induction”, “orientation” or “training”. Lives are complicated, old habits die hard, and while we may see great benefit from having such privacy, the women haven’t experienced this before so may be unsure of what benefits it will bring:
However, just building latrines and bathrooms is not enough. Women need to believe that they deserve privacy, that it is their right to be able to take care of themselves and to be healthy. Right now, in Bakhel, women do not see their lack of privacy as a problem- it is just the way things are. Thus, the first step is bringing this issue out into public, and talking about it as openly as possible, to let women see how much healthier and happier they could be if they had a bit of privacy. Yet getting it out in the open is easier said than done. Even writing this, I felt a little awkward, but if I can’t feel comfortable talking about it, then how can the women in places like Bakhel, where such topics are unmentionable, start bringing them up?
In understanding the need to talk openly about such issues Neha, Vishnu Priya and Pushpa were able make the Hunar Ghar women’s meetings safe places of open discussion about many issues affecting the village and the community, including personal hygiene. This has let over time to a genuine demand from certain people within the community – five people, to be precise – for such facilities. Deepak and the team have discussed the possibility of and Hunar Ghar involvement in these bathrooms, and come to an agreement: Hunar Ghar will provide support and ‘labour’ from our staff, as well as material from the sides of the basic bathrooms, the women will do the building and provide bamboo for a basic structure.
To return to my original statement, I find this very exciting. There are several reasons for this.
- There has been a forum opened up for women to talk about personal health issues in an increasingly openmanner
- Some women have understood Hunar Ghar to be a resource they can use to turn their new understanding of personal health issues into concrete steps towards improving their families health
- They are acting upon this, and in discussions with female and male Hunar Ghar team members, organising the implementation of their right to better health
- Community health status will improve
- The public construction of a bathroom is a sign that people in the community are now ready to do things differently from other people: they are starting to prioritise their personal and community development over the fears and taboos of yesterday.
- Such openness is a significant step along the way to other female health improvements, such as access to and use of gynecological care.
- The demand came from within the community, and Hunar Ghar is being understanding and responsive to these needs.
- There is a sharing of expenses, effort and responsibilities between the individuals of the community and the Hunar Ghar team
- Hunar Ghar’s responding to the needs and requests of the community members demonstrates that we listen, care, and are supportive. This will lead to greater use of Hunar Ghar as a community resource in the future.
- Our Hunar Ghar team are happy to be doing these types of activities on Sundays and holidays – this is extremely unusual for “school teachers”: Our Hunar Ghar team are embracing the idea of Hunar Ghar being a shared learning space where everyone supports one another – the 9 to 5 day is becoming a thing of the past. In it’s place there is inspiration, energy and collaboration.
Every single one of these is significant in an of itself. It may be only 5 latrines in one village of the hundreds of thousands in India, but for these 5 women and their daughters, and then the next 5 women, then the next 5 … it is deeply meaningful, incredibly valuable, and worth recognising and celebrating.