As you’re reading this blog post on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop, you’re probably not thinking much about the circumstances that gave you the ability to read.
Certain things are so basic to our everyday lives that we never give them much thought. We use them, day in and day out, and only miss them when they are out of commission. Even then, we probably don’t contemplate the long-term impact of their loss. We’re too busy thinking of our short-term annoyance.
These are simple, everyday things—like running water, and indoor plumbing.
Sanitation and Education
Imagine what it might be like growing up as a young girl without access to indoor plumbing.
Your most basic bodily functions must be performed out in the open, under leering eyes. You have no privacy. Often, you hold out against the urge to relieve yourself until nightfall. Only then can you feel somewhat protected against the jeers, insults, and even assaults of strangers.
Poor womenfolk of the village wait for the night; until darkness descends, they can’t go out to defecate. What bodily torture they must be feeling, how many diseases that act might engender. Can’t we just make arrangements for toilets for the dignity of our mothers and sisters?
— Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India: 2014 Independence Day Speech
Perhaps you have the opportunity to go to school. If you have access to indoor plumbing at school, you probably have to share toilets with the boys. When you reach puberty, and your menses come, you have no separate facilities at school to keep yourself clean. Instead of managing your natural cycle in privacy, circumstances cause it to become an uncomfortably public event.
You find yourself more and more reluctant to attend school. The other students are privy to your most private moments—and they’re not too shy to talk about it. After a few months, it simply doesn’t seem worth the harassment.
You leave school, and soon you are married off to an older man. You become pregnant. Over time, you bear several children. But your children never seem entirely healthy. They’re always sickly, or they just don’t seem to be thriving. You never feel quite well yourself anymore.
Education about Sanitation
The above scenario might sound overly dramatic. Yet it represents the everyday plight of many young women in rural India.
It’s not just the girls who suffer. Any children who defecate without proper handwashing facilities can contract tropical enteropathy. This disease is caused by repeatedly ingesting fecal matter. When people use their unclean hands to handle food, the disease spreads. Its victims can experience diarrhea, malnutrition, and stunted growth.
Tropical enteropathy is one of many diseases resulting from poor hygiene. Like many other diseases, it could be easily stopped by proper handwashing.
Lack of clean, running water makes handwashing a much less common practice. But providing handwashing facilities is only half the answer. People must be taught the importance of handwashing, along with effective handwashing techniques.
LEAF Society’s sanitation efforts include the construction of toilets and related sanitation facilities. LEAF Society has instituted menstrual hygiene rooms. This recent project, undertaken with chemical company BASF, provides private spaces where young girls can take care of their personal hygiene needs while staying at school. Girls in schools with separate toilets and hygiene facilities tend to stay in school much longer than their counterparts using unisex toilet facilities. This innovative BASF-LEAF Society CSR project also includes water-flushed urinals, ramps and toilets for the physically challenged, and handwashing posts.
But LEAF Society does more than just providing the physical facilities for better sanitation. These new facilities come with bright, colorful “instruction manuals”—written right on their walls!
One of LEAF Society’s primary missions is to teach good hygiene to the youth of rural India. We realize that without behavior modification, there will be no real change in the state of sanitation. Building the best and most readily-available sanitation facilities in the world will make no difference if people do not understand why these facilities are crucial to health. Moreover, if people don’t learn how to use these tools, the state of sanitation will not improve. Using lessons and games to teach the youth about healthy living, LEAF Society tries to institute better hygiene practices. From the youngest members of our society, new ideas can spread and become part of our culture.
LEAF Society’s efforts contribute at a grassroots level to the larger campaign of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission). Officially launched a little over a year ago, Swachh Bharat aims to eliminate open defecation, and ensure access to toilet facilities for all.
Toilets are one of those common, everyday objects that many people take for granted. Yet they are indispensable to good sanitation. Toilets are so important that the United Nations declared 19 November “World Toilet Day”. This observance, with its social media hashtag #wecantwait, raises awareness of the need for toilets everywhere. Those made most vulnerable by their absence are women and children—who either suffer violation and violence, or deprivation and disease.
Swachh Bharat also recognizes the need to educate the public about the importance of good hygiene and sanitation practices. Even some people with access to toilets still prefer to defecate out in the open. Without changing public attitudes, the problem of open defecation will not be solved—even if one hundred twenty million toilets are built in India within the next four years, as planned.
Swachh Bharat’s goal is to completely stop open defecation by 2 October 2019. The date is significant for Indians, as it will be the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth.
Honoring the Past, Building the Future
Sanitation gives us something very close to independence, and just as important. Sanitation is freedom:
- Freedom from disease and ignorance
- Freedom to live with dignity
- Freedom to be educated and make informed choices
- Freedom to discover and fulfill our human potential.
Contact LEAF Society today to learn how you can help to bring this essential freedom to the villages of rural India.
Michelle Baumgartner is a freelance writer and editor. One of her current projects is an internship with LEAF Society. Michelle’s company, StellaWriting LLC, provides blogging, online content, and marketing materials for businesses and nonprofit organizations.