Don’t ignore the girls

New Delhi: Ask any Indian woman and she will tell you that she can go for hours without access to a toilet. On average, most women try not to use a toilet for between 6 and 13 hours a day. This is mostly because there are few clean toilets they can access. The scenario is worse in rural and semi-urban areas.

However, the lack of access to clean and safe toilets particularly affects the mental and physical well-being of adolescent girls, says a report prepared by Bank of America India and Dasra, a philanthropic firm working on advocacy and capacity building in the not-for-profit sector. The report, titled Dignity for Her, was released on Thursday as part of the Dasra Philanthropy Week 2016, an annual event aimed at celebrating the voluntary sector.

The report says 63 million of 120 million adolescent girls in India lack access to private toilets. It aims to take “…a step towards shaping the dialogue around building a robust sanitation ecosystem for adolescent girls”.

Dignity for Her, which aims to go beyond the common discourse on the subject, suggests that girls be treated as partners or consumers rather than beneficiaries, and solutions be designed based on their needs.

Some of its recommendations include prioritizing individual toilets over community toilets and investing in school-based access to toilets and hygiene products.

“Once an adolescent girl is made aware of and given access to sanitation facilities, she will in turn spread the message within her family and community, helping her peers gain access to private toilets and create demand for better products and services. Our attempt is to demonstrate the dividend this demographic can deliver in terms of a multi-generational as well as multiplier effect,” says Kaku Nakhate, president and country head, Bank of America India.

Sanitation for adolescent girls is also one of the focus areas of the Swachh Bharat Mission, launched on 15 August 2014, promising separate toilets for girls and boys in all government schools. The mission called for 425,000 toilets to be built within a year of launch. A year later, the government claimed it had achieved the target.

But reports indicated that the toilets lacked water connections, were inadequate for the number of students in schools, not connected to drainage, and often kept locked by teachers or school administration—a clear indication that not all adolescent girls and boys have access to clean, workable toilets even a year after the mission was launched.

The high dropout rate of adolescent girls from educational institutes as they hit puberty is often attributed, among other things, to the lack of accessible toilets, according to Mumtaz Shaikh, a social activist recognized for her role in the ‘right to pee’ campaign in Mumbai.

Dignity for Her pegs the dropout rate of girls soon after reaching puberty at close to 23%. It also says that 70% of girls enter puberty without access to information on what to expect/prepare for. On an average, girls are said to miss six days of school because of “that time of the month” and the lack of sanitary facilities available to them.

For the past five years, Shaikh, who is a programme coordinator of women’s empowerment at not-for-profit CORO India, has been propagating the need for free toilets for women just as there are free government-built urinals for men.

CORO India, established in 1989 to address adult literacy in Mumbai’s slums, has evolved into an organization that works on issues of equality and empowerment of marginalized sections of society.

According to Shaikh, the authorities cite the need for water, cleaning and privacy (read doors) in women’s toilets as the reasons why they cannot be free.

Shaikh’s campaign, run by CORO India, along with other organizations, has managed to get the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai to create a gender budget, identify 96 sites to set up free toilets for women and allot ₹ 5.25 crore in 2015 for building them. “It is still only on paper, but it’s a commitment and recognition of the needs of women,” says Shaikh.

S. Damodaran, founder of Tamil Nadu-based not-for-profit Gramalaya, said that his organization has been working on issues of sanitation and water since 1987, but started programmes focused on young girls less than five years ago.

Pointing out that often girls don’t eat or drink properly to avoid going to the toilet, Damodaran says the most important aspect of a programme targeting girls is to engage with them.

Set to start a multi-pronged approach in 14 schools in rural Tamil Nadu next fiscal, Damodaran hopes to address all aspects, including spreading awareness, engaging the community and creating infrastructure.

Dignity for Her echoes to a large extent what sector experts like Damodaran and Shaikh point to: look beyond physical infrastructure, aim to spread awareness and create ambassadors out of young women who will talk about the need for toilets and hygiene in their communities and families.

“Avoid one-size-fits-all type of solutions,” says the report, suggesting that the most impactful and scalable interventions deal with correcting knowledge and behaviour patterns among both adolescent girls and the key decision-makers around them.

The report has cited eight not-for-profits, shortlisted from 300, working in the sanitation and hygiene space, as good examples of innovative and holistic approach to sanitation problems, and focused on adolescent girls. These are the Centre for Advocacy and Research (New Delhi), Gramalaya (Tiruchirapalli), Gujarat Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (Ahmedabad), Nidan (New Delhi), Shelter (Pune), Swami Vivekanand Youth Movement (Mysuru), Vatsalya (Lucknow) and Wherever the Need (Puducherry).

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