“I don’t know the rules of grammar… If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.” That was advertising guru David Ogilvy on the art and the importance of audience-specific messaging. His mantra holds true not just for the advertising industry but also for programmes that target diverse communities. Take for example, the Indian government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) programme, which has huge political support. While the programme with its stiff targets is pushing state bureaucracies to try innovative --- sometimes excessively aggressive --- plans to end open defecation and increase the pace of toilet building --- its community-specific communication has not been up to the mark. This has resulted in a unique problem: In many states of India, especially in the patriarchal northern parts, men don’t want to use toilets because they think that they are for women, children and old people. This may sound surprising to many but that’s the ground truth and the government has also recognised this flaw in the public communication on SBA.
In a set of guidelines sent to the state, the Centre has asked them to be gender inclusive in their SBA communication. Why should the messaging on SBA only involve a brother gifting a toilet to his sister, or a sarpanch vowing not to sport a moustache unless his village turns open-defecation free, the Centre has asked the states. This is because the theme of most behaviour-changing messages from governments focus on shame, or dignity of women while advocating against open defecation, said a report on the new guidelines in a national daily. Such messaging, the Centre feels, “perpetuate gender-stereotyping and portray women as weak and passive compared to men.” “ While these may be useful for entry-point messaging, they carry risks of lack of ownership by men and the reinforcing of gender stereotypes like women should not step out of the house or men as the custodians of a women’s dignity,” the new guidelines have said. Sanitation experts say that the success of a programme is hugely dependent on the quality of communication and every city must have its own communication plan in the local language and be replete with local references to connect with people.
It just not the quality of communication that is important, the SBA also suffers from under-utilisation of funds meant for communication. SBA guidelines require 8% of allocations to be utilised for communication. However, in FY 2016-17, till January 10, 2017, according to Accountability Initiative, only 1% of total expenditure had been spent such activities. The result of this low usage of funds and diffused messaging on the link between sanitation and health is that users are not demanding toilets. The Centre’s new guideline on proper messaging on SBA is an encouraging step forward.