Ashwini Sahane, 14, a resident of Dhundalwadi in Dahanu district, would skip school regularly during her periods. Then something happened that changed everything, something rather elementary. In May, a new girls’ toilet was constructed at her school. Since then, she has had an impressive attendance record.
For the 140 girls in Dhundalwadi school, the school’s toilets give access to sanitation and privacy. But the impact is larger — not skipping school also means better focus on education and better overall health. “I feel more comfortable changing in the school toilet than in the fields near my home. It is more hygienic and safe,” says a visibly shy Sahane.
“We needed toilets in the 22 tribal schools in our village. As part of their corporate social responsibility initiative, a private firm built 10 toilets,” said Smita Pagdhane, principal of the Dhundalwadi school. “The attendance of the female students used to be less than 50 per cent. But since the toilets were built, we have seen a 100 per cent attendance,” she added.
Dhundalwadi is home to seven tribal hamlets and has a population of at least 2,500. Located at least 133.5 km from Mumbai, the village lacks basic infrastructure including household water connections, toilet facilities and electricity in homes. A few houses which are equipped with these bare essentials have only erratic water and power supply.
Here, a toilet is a prized possession, to be guarded from vagabonds and drunks. “Once, some drunk men attempted to break into the school toilet. We managed to drive them away but it could happen again,” said Shivaji Mahale, the village sarpanch.
Located a few blocks away from the school is the tribal ashram. The ashram school provides education up to Std X and has boarding facilities. The school building comprises a courtyard and a dilapidated ground-plus-two structure. Situated next to it are four assembly halls that double up as a hostels. These ashrams house 265 female students and 321 male students. The two toilets are the “proud” additions to the school building. “We have government toilets but with poor water supply, they are rendered useless. For students, the fields were the only option to answer nature’s call,” said JD Pagane, the school principal.
“Families of most students work in the paddy fields. Majority are from the Warli community. Since their parents work as labourers, they leave their children in the ashram schools,” added Pagane. The school receives a sum of Rs 930 per student per month from the government to take care of all their needs. “Many times I would prefer staying thirsty at night so that I could avoid going to the fields in the dark. It is scary, but now with the toilets in our school compound, I don’t have anything to fear,” said Jairam Hatila, a Std VI student.