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Shaming people for open defecation double-edged sword: Sanitation expert

Curtis is currently working with the Public Health Foundation of India and the Indian Institute of Public Health-Gandhinagar to help “encourage people to build and use toilets” in the country.

Written by Avinash Nair | Gandhinagar | February 23, 2017 5:17:56 am
Open defacation, open defacation shaming, Val Curtis, LOndon, Val Curtis, london, Gujarat, Gujarat Val Curtis,, Sanitation expert Val Curtis,, sanitation, gujarat news, indian express Val Curtis is working to help “encourage people to build and use toilets” in India. (Source: Express photo by Avinash Nair)

Shaming people for open defecation is a “double-edged sword”, said professor Val Curtis, director of environmental health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who was in Gandhinagar on Wednesday to participate in a workshop meant to help sustain the efforts of the first six districts of Gujarat that were declared ODF (open defecation free).

“Instead of talking about toilets as something for backward people; instead of concentrating on shaming people, we think the people of Gujarat should be encouraged to build beautiful toilets that they are proud of. It should be the same reason to get a toilet, as buying a car or a motorbike or a good kitchen,” she said while talking to The Indian Express on the sidelines of the workshop held at Raj Bhavan.

Curtis is currently working with the Public Health Foundation of India and the Indian Institute of Public Health-Gandhinagar to help “encourage people to build and use toilets” in the country.

Asked if shaming and embarrassing people — as some politicians have done in the past — is a way to ensure greater usage of toilets, Curtis, who has over 30 years of experience in sanitation, said, “When everybody is open defecating, then it is normal. But when only a few people are defecating, you feel people are looking at you. You feel strange and ashamed. To encourage people to feel they are different is a powerful way to encourage people to use toilets. It is, however, a double-edged sword, because you do not want people to feel that they are outcastes. It should not be telling people that they are bad.”

In the past not just politicians, but even advertisements have been aired on television were children were seen ridiculing those defecating in the open. “It is hugely difficult to get people to change life-long habits. It is a change to their daily routine and social status. You need to disrupt people’s existing behaviour by using powerful motives. However, we want people to have emotional reasons to build and use toilets,” she added.

Earlier, while making a presentation at a workshop comprising state government officials, DDOs, sanitation officials, self-help groups and anganwadi workers from the six ODF districts of Narmada, Mehsana, Porbandar, Tapi, Junagadh, Anand, the official from the UK said the challenge before ODF districts in Gujarat is to “stay permanently open defecation free”.

During the workshop, she showed a model of “good toilet design” and showed pictures of how people needed to taught the basics on how to sit on a toilet, use and clean it. In the interactive session where Curtis spoke in English and used a Hindi translator, participants were asked reasons for people in Gujarat villages not using a toilet. Social stigma, reasons of purity, cultural norms and scarcity of water were some of the feedback from the audience.

“We are like the speeding train on a track. To change the track we need powerful levers,” said Curtis after hearing the responses. She also conducted some exercises, including asking for volunteers who could stand on a chair and sing a song.

When nobody came forth, Curtis while trying to drive home the behavioural aspects involved in toilet usage, said, “Why is it difficult? It is because we care about what other people think of us. We do not want to be different.”

Speaking at the workshop, Jayanti Ravi, commissioner and principal secretary, Rural Development, said, “An ODF community if a dynamic thing. We have reached a milestone, but we have to sustain our efforts for at least three more years, to ensure that the behavioural change in people is permanent.” Later in the evening, Gujarat Governor OP Kohli also participated in the workshop.

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