There was a time when 12-year-old Shivani Maurya was forced to get up early in the morning – while it was still very dark – so that she could relieve herself in an open ground near her home in Jakhaura village of Lalitpur, one of the poorest districts of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state. “The day I was late, I either had to walk for miles to some secluded place or wait the whole day until the sun went down,” recalls the young girl, her eyes clouding at the recollection.
Thankfully, Shivani doesn’t have to suffer any longer because she managed to convince her parents to construct a toilet in their own home. These days, the youngster is busy motivating others in her village to follow suit.
Much like Shivani, 13-year-old Onkar Nath Dubey of Khamhariya Damuan village in Mirzapur district, UP, used to observe his mother, Babita, suffer because of the lack of a toilet at home. For Babita, a mother of two in her early thirties, the monsoon was a particularly harrowing time. She says, “Rains seemed like a curse, especially during my periods. The fields used to be completely water logged, it was so mucky and there were so many poisonous insects. In fact, for most women, it is next to impossible to go out into the fields for defecation around that time.” Today, fortunately, thanks to the pressure Onkar exerted on her husband, Ashok, there is a toilet now in the family’s backyard.
Both Shivani and Onkar, students of Class Eight in the government-run Upper Primary School of their village, have been catalysts of change for their homes and communities, inspired by their mentor Meena, the nine-year-old animated girl mascot of Unicef, who speaks to rural children through broadcasts over ‘Meena Radio’.
Geetali Trivedi of Unicef, explains, “The show, ‘Meena ki Dunia’ (Meena’s World), is an innovative and engaging radio programme that uses the entertainment-education genre to create a fun learning environment in schools.” In 15-minute capsules the young protagonist, Meena, tries to convey a logical perspective on serious issues in an attractive, fun way. Besides learning critical life skills from her, youngsters also gain insights into rarely articulated issues like sanitation and hygiene. Of course, Shivani and Onkar are among the few children who have not only comprehended Meena’s messages but have been motivated to act on them by taking it upon themselves to get their parents to construct toilets in their homes.
Shares Onkar, ” I told my father about what Meena had talked to us about and asked him to get a toilet constructed in our house. He initially refused saying, ‘why waste space inside the house for something like a toilet?’ But I kept insisting!” His father, Ashok, adds, “For a month he kept asking me the same question every day. Eventually I had to give in to his demand!”
Although the family stays in Mirzapur, Ashok earns a living by driving a taxi in distant Tamil Nadu. It took him a couple of months to collect the money and get started on constructing the toilet. Onkar’s firm stand on the matter has benefited the whole family, particularly his mother.
While Onkar stood his ground against his father, Shivani spoke to her mother, Shakuntala Devi, sharing what she had learnt from the Meena broadcasts at school. She wanted her mother to convince her father on the need to put aside some money for a toilet. Shakuntala Devi, who knew well the humiliation she herself experienced when going to the field to relieve herself, understood the agony of her growing daughter. She began to reason with her husband. Not only did she convince him to build a toilet in their home, she was able to persuade three of his brothers to do so.
Now that their own homes had toilets, Shivani and Onkar directed their powers of persuasion at other families in their village and with considerable success. For their efforts the duo has been honoured with the ‘Meena Ratna Student Award’, which is given every year by Unicef.
For city residents, toilets are no big deal. But here’s why the work of these two youngsters is not just commendable but vital. According to some studies by UNICEF and WHO, over 600 million Indians defecate in the open. Uttar Pradesh, in fact, is one of the lowest toilet usage states in the country, with only 22 per cent of its population making use of such a facility. According to Census 2011 figures, the percentage of toilet use is the lowest in Madhya Pradesh (13.6 per cent coverage), while states like like UP, Bihar (18.6) and Rajasthan (20) fare only marginally better. This despite the fact that under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), earlier known as the Total Sanitation Campaign, the government provides monetary support for the building of individual household latrines. In June this year, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs had raised the amount for construction from Rs 4,600 to nearly Rs 10,000. It also scrapped the distinction between BPL (below poverty line) and APL (above poverty line) families. Under the revamped NBA, the Centre would contribute Rs 3,200 to the building of a toilet, while the state contributes Rs 1,400 and the beneficiary, Rs 900.
Obviously it is women who are the worst affected, physically and psychologically, by this appalling lack of toilets. They are ones who are forced to go to isolated spots mostly in the dark, which makes them vulnerable to molestation, rape and attacks from wild animals. They face extreme humiliation if they are caught by farmers. Such unsanitary conditions only further their susceptibility to urinary tract infections and other health problems.
The problems only multiply for women who are menstruating. A recent study by AC Nielsen and Plan India reveals that 335 million women and girls menstruate in India on a monthly basis and many of them have poor menstrual hygiene – which is only natural in the absence of toilets at home and in schools.
Through Meena Radio broadcasts, an effort has been initiated to stress on concerns like sanitation and hygiene along with much more articulated issues like child rights, gender equity, social inclusion, and nutrition. The radio programme reaches out to more than 5,000 Upper Primary Schools – that’s nearly 570,000 children and about 12,500 teachers in nine district of UP.
“Uttar Pradesh has been a nurturing home for Meena, which is one of the very first such programmes in the world, wherein children first listen to radio broadcasts and then the teacher initiates a dialogue on the issues raised,” says Paolo Mefalopulos, the head of Communication for Development at Unicef India.
The results, embodied by young, enthusiastic volunteers like Shivani and Onkar, along with many others, are there for all to see. Rural India certainly needs these sanitation and hygiene.