Updated: March 6, 2021 8:52:20 am
The Swachh Bharat Grameen Phase I guidelines (2017) state that “requirements and sensitivities related to gender, including dignity and safety issues, are to be taken into account at all stages of sanitation programmes from planning to post-implementation.” The department of Drinking Water and Sanitation released the guidelines, recognising the gender dimensions of sanitation in India. It emphasised not only the need for women’s participation in planning and implementation of sanitation interventions but also “their leadership in SBM-G committees and institutions”.
The sustainable development goals (Target 6.2) require India “by 2030, to achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.”
Swachh Bharat Mission 2 .0 speaks of sustained behavioral change while embarking on the newer agendas of sustainable solid waste management and safe disposal of wastewater and reuse.
Planning, procurement, infrastructure creation, and monitoring are the basic tenets of implementation in Swachh Bharat and the guidelines for the first phase of the mission called for strengthening the role of women. The states were accordingly expected to ensure adequate representation of women in the village water and sanitation committees (VWSCs), leading to optimal gender outcomes.
The SBM-Grameen guidelines (Phase I) specifically recommended that 50 per cent of the members of VWSCs should be women. In several states, the guidelines were strictly adhered to. There were inevitably cases where women were fronts for spouses. This capturing has happened in panchayat seats as well but research has shown that over time, women do pick up the challenge, and if voted back are likely to assume charge. The government has also very effectively used over 8 lakh swachhagrahis, mainly women, who for small honorariums work to push through behavioural change at the community level.
There are no quick solutions other than adopting concerted approaches to ensure the survival and protection of the girl child through good health from sanitation and nutrition, and provision of water to liberate women from collecting water, and enabling their education. Fortunately, there are spirited instances of women leaders in sanitation: Uttara Thakur, a differently-abled panchayat head from Chhattisgarh, was determined to improve sanitation services in her village. She went door-to-door to motivate people to use toilets. Her contagious spirit mobilised the whole village to join hands and become open-defecation free.
Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon, a Doordarshan TV series promoted by PFI, used entertainment-education around safe and sustained sanitation practices to improve people’s awareness and promote shifts in social and gender norms around the use and maintenance of toilets. This reached 200 million viewers, nearly 45 per cent of whom reportedly took some action or promised to.
Information, education, and communication, which aims at behaviour change of the masses, is key to the success of the swachhta mission 2.0. During the early years of implementation, the messaging touched on the “shame and dignity” of women”. While these were useful entry-point messages, they carry the risk of lack of ownership by men and the reinforcing of gender stereotypes.
In one of the promotional videos of SBM, featuring celebrity ambassador Vidya Balan, the protagonist asks a man on his wedding day whether he had a toilet at home, to which the answer was negative. This prompts her to ask the bride to remove her veil, suggesting that a man who lets his wife defecate in the open has no right to ask her to follow the purdah. This was later amended, highlighting the importance of viewing every communication through a gender lens lest there be unintended collateral damage.
It is heartening to notice changes in SBM messaging that reflect major transformations, attempting to popularise and portray stories of women groups and successful women swachhta champions to create the much-needed social ripple that would inspire women to take complete charge as they seek to achieve a healthy and dignified life for themselves and their families. In Jharkhand, trained women masons built over 15 lakh toilets in one year, and helped the state achieve its open defecation free (rural) target.
The India Sanitation Coalition has helped link micro-finance with self-help groups run by women for sanitation needs. Increasingly, interventions with these groups which drive livelihoods can be designed to produce income and well-being impact with water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programmes.
A national monitoring and evaluation system to track and measure gender outcomes in SBM is necessary. Several researchers in this space have commented that gender analysis frameworks have a long history in development practice. We can learn from these frameworks to support design, implementation, and measurement that can bridge the gender equality gap in sanitation. SBM’s current focus on the implementation of the infrastructure of water and sanitation could take attention away from the much-needed continuing focus on behaviour change and gender.
We will need effective communications and training programmes to build the capacity of stakeholders on gender targeting, both on the supply and demand sides of interventions.
Besides the government, the role of non-state actors, including that of institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Unicef and several NGOs, must be lauded as we pursue sustainable sanitation using a powerful gender lens. There is no doubt that women can help to drive change and bring about lasting change as the jan andolan for swachhta, health and sanitation gains momentum.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 6, 2021 under the title ‘In sanitation, put women in charge.’ The writer is chair of FICCI Water Mission and India Sanitation Coalition.
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