In the schools with separate toilets for girls, the attendance rate is high. In those where such facilities are lacking, many girls do not come to school during menstruation.
Do you think the construction of toilet can be a matter of celebration? It can. In fact, having a toilet means a lot at least in South Asia. In Nepal, it’s not just a matter of celebration but also pride.
You understand where I am coming from if you have watched Bollywood movie Toile: A Love Story. The film brilliantly portrays the importance of toilet not just for hygiene but also to maintain the marital bond.
In 2011, I was in Chitwan district to cover Open Defecation Free (ODF) area announcement program for the United Nations radio show “Radio Chautari.” I was overwhelmed to see hundreds of men and women singing and dancing and celebrating it as a mega event. People were excited that their area was being declared open defecation free. At the same time, they were unhappy that they couldn’t be the first in the list of ODF districts as Kaski district had already been declared ODF prior to Chitwan.
The event took me down the memory lane. Coming from a poor family in southern Nepal I can recall how we used open fields and river banks to defecate during my childhood.
The government of Nepal, in collaboration with several national and international agencies, is extensively working towards declaring Nepal ‘Open Defecation Free (ODF)’ country. The initial plan was to do it by 2017. The massive earthquakes of 2015 put a break in this initiative.
After I joined DCA—a Danish Humanitarian and Development Organization—last year, I got an opportunity to see toilet construction closely and feel people’s reactions in the run of ODF and also got an opportunity to participate in the celebration programs.
“It was a matter of pride for us, when the district was declared open defecation free,” Bir Bahadur Gurung, principal of a local school in Lamjung district said. “Now the earthquake has pushed us back to the previous situation.” He believes that destruction of toilet ‘hit their dignity’.
Constructing toilet was not that easy. The government had to force people by introducing various policies including ‘either build a toilet or you will be barred from government benefits including social security schemes for old age people, benefits to single women, birth certificates and citizenship certificate’ among others.
Such rules were imposed to ensure the success of government’s mega campaign to declare the whole country open defecation free.
Ful Maya Tamang, 69, of Dhading district defecated in the open field for her most of her life. “Those were bad days when I had to hold my stomach tightly so that I could resist for a couple of hours (until evening) to wait to go to the toilet in an open field,” she said with an embarrassing smile. “We used to defecate in the grass in an open field. This means we used to feed our cattle with latrine mixed grass.” “It’s three months since our toilet was built and I have experienced its benefits with not even a single case of diarrhea so far,” she added. I met Ful Maya in one of open defecation free area declaration programs, supported by DFID funded Rapid WASH project and implemented by DCA in Dhading district.
Bir Bahadur Gurung and Ful Maya Tamang represent the people in rural areas who have seen transformative changes with toilet construction. Toilet is also linked with the dignity of women. On my visit to Makwanpur district I met many women who ‘proudly’ said they now have a safe place where they can bath and wash their ‘private’ cloths. They shared that it was embarrassing when they used to visit public taps during menstruation period. “People used to scold us and ask us not to come to the tap with ‘such cloths’,” shared Kanchhi Maya Pakhrin.
This may sound completely bizarre to those who always had a toilet at home.
Toilet and education
Toilet is also linked with the girl’s education. In the schools where there are separate toilets for girls the attendance rate is high. In schools where such facilities are lacking, many girls do not come to school during menstruation. A girl child I met in Dhading said having a separate toilet for girls makes a lot of difference in their academic performance. There are still some women who do not drink water when they travel, to avoid the need to go to toilet.
Everyone I met during the course of work wanted to tell their stories so that people living in other parts of the country followed their steps. In the past one decade we have come a long way in toilet construction. Many INGOs have kept ‘toilet’ component as a major activity of Water Sanitation and Hygiene projects.
But there still is a long way to go. In the southern plains, almost all of 16 districts are yet to be declared ODF. Toilet, the movie I mentioned in the beginning of the article, basically exposed the difficulties women face when they have no toilets. In the movie, a newly married bride files for divorce because her husband’s family did not have a toilet. One of the intended messages is the bride’s family should check whether her in-law’s family has toilet before taking decision to give her in marriage.
I hope no woman in Nepal will have to face similar situation and Nepal will soon become ODF country.