Undercover activity

Published: Saturday 30 April 2005

Women & Sanitation 21-24 March 2005

Dilli Haat often has rural visitors, usually craftspeople. But last month, this venue of many a colourful mela offered a different glimpse into life in a rural district, particularly for those without access to basic rights like sanitation facilities. This photo documentation is about a harsh reality.

Curated by Amit Pasricha, the travelling exhibition is a collaborative effort of the Aga Khan Development Network (akdn) and its partners. akdn has pioneered water and sanitation systems in rural communities in Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

The stories, from a spectrum of 125 villages in Gujarat, were revealing. Farida, a 15 year old in Nagalpur village, near Kutch, went to a school without a toilet. As her home has both a bathroom and a toilet, rare luxuries in this arid region, she and her six sisters were luckier than most. But when their home was destroyed in the 2001 earthquake, they too had to visit the open fields.

Kokilaben Parmar, eight months pregnant, tries to eat very little, to avoid ablutions. But her condition forces her to relieve herself every two hours, to trek more than a kilometre to the community toilet.

"Men can relieve themselves anywhere," says Kamiben Rabari, resident of Shergadh village, Junagadh. But for women, it becomes covert by default. "What if men or vehicles pass by? We can't let them see us!" Going out also means exposure to even the dangers of defecating in the open. At times, women get molested or raped. So they go in groups. There's also a constant fear of interruption, so constipation is a common ailment.

According to the Census 2001, 80 per cent of rural households in India do not have a toilet. Community facilities become unviable without maintenance. In many areas, people of different castes refuse to use a common toilet.

It's worse for the disabled. Romatben and her daughters are all vision impaired. They have to wait until someone can go with them to the nearby forest. Understandably, Romatben is reluctant to marry her daughters into families that don't have toilets at home. Narayan K Banerjee of the Centre for Development Studies, agrees. "Monsoon and winter are difficult seasons, especially for the elderly and the handicapped." Karmaben Rakhya Ahir of Bhalot, Kutch, would agree. She has spent a lifetime going to the fields in the dark or using a sand pot at home. But "my life will improve now," she says. At 75, she has finally managed to have a toilet built. At home.

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