Like most women who prefer to visit the ladies’ room together, the women of Sakhara village in Vidarbha’s Yavatmal district also answered their nightly nature’s call in groups.
Except it wasn’t for midnight banter, but for their safety.
Because right till early 2005, the ladies’ latrine in this tiny hamlet, located about 753 km north-east of Mumbai, was an open field.
Today, this village housing 62 families has 50 functional toilets.
In November 2005, it received an award from the state government as the first ‘open defecation-free village’ in the Pandharkawda block of Yavatmal.
The credit goes to the enterprising women of Sakhara’s self-help groups (SHG). Under a thatched roof, sheltered from the scorching afternoon sun, 15 of them joke about their now-obsolete open-air lavatory.
“We used to sit down, look around here and there to make sure there were no men around, quickly do our business and scamper off,” grins Anusay Gonivar, a feisty 60-year-old and one of the village’s key SHG members.
While the men’s loo (read open ground) was a fair distance away, squatting in a field unprotected from prying eyes was unnerving for the women, especially at night.
“We had to wake up our neighbours for company,” says Pushpabai Gutmulkuvar (54), another SHG member. Now, even before introducing her family to guests, she proudly points to the little sky-blue latrine in the corner of her courtyard.
Much of rural India has benefited from the government’s Nirmal Gram Yojana introduced in 2000, to ensure open-defecation free villages. Nearly 3,450 villages in Maharashtra have been declared open-defecation free thanks to this scheme, which highlights the issue of rural sanitation through the building of toilets in panchayats, blocks and districts.
Ironically, Sakhara’s inhabitants used the 20 government-sponsored toilets built in 2000 as storehouses.
“The government only made outer structures, which fell apart in a few months. There were no seats, no pipes; not even a door,” grumbles Gutmulkuvar. “Neither did they teach us how to use it or educate us about its benefits.”
In April 2005, with the aid of local UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) representatives, the women SHGs devised a sanitation plan for Sakhara.
Each of the groups pooled in Rs 500 for raw materials to build toilets costing Rs 300 to Rs 1,500.
The richer families used bricks; the rest used tarpaulin or thatched roofs.
The government’s shoddy latrines were rebuilt with cemented bricks, commodes, flush tanks, drainage pipes — and doors. Makeshift toilets were also constructed in homes and the local primary school.
Once the toilets were ready, the most challenging part for the women was to convince the shy villagers to use them.
“They thought it was unhygienic to defecate and urinate within their own houses,” says Gonivar.
Through gram panchayat meetings, the women helped locals understand the advantages of lavatories. “It was strange at first,” says 22-year-old Sachin Pindu, an agriculture student. “We didn’t like squatting on a ‘seat’. Only city people are used to this.”
But it soon caught on.
For those who still preferred squatting under the sky, the women hired a 65-year-old farmer to act as watchman by night. Offenders defecating in the open were fined Rs 500 per offence.
“I caught three women,” Sonerao says proudly. In three months, the open defecation stopped. “People stayed away because they didn’t have money for the fine and they were afraid of Sonerao,” smiles Gutmulkuvar.
In addition to the sanitation drive, Sakhara’s women have imposed a ban on liquor shops and built an approach road so the village is accessible by car.
“We are proud of what they have done for the village,” says farmer Kisan Pindu (45).
The women know they have earned this praise. “Our village is good, but we have worked hard to make it so,” says Gonivar.
Adds Gutmulkuvar: “We will vote for whoever does something for the betterment of Sakhara and its people.”