By Angela Walker
MORADABAD, India, 22 March 2010 – Raw sewage bubbles up along the open sewers that line the narrow walkways of the slums of Moradabad known as mohallas. Hills of stinking garbage pile high in vacant lots surrounded by wafting clouds of eager flies in the hot, humid air. Florescent green algae sprout over ponds of pooling fetid water.
“The more near we are to this garbage and dirt, the more sick we are,” says slum dweller Munni Begum, squatting on a daybed outside her modest one-room home to escape the humid heat.
Munni belongs to a 16-member strong, volunteer woman’s empowerment group, which is helping to clean up her neighbourhood and spread the importance of hygiene to promote good health.
“Before the group it was very, very bad,” says Munni. “Inside the houses it was very dirty, and the roads were very dirty.”
The slum used to rely on “manual scavengers” who removed faeces from “dry latrines” in baskets carried on their heads.
“It’s quite an inhuman thing, and it’s really quite unhygienic also, because they would then dump it on the road,” said NupurPande, Project Officer in the Uttar Pradesh UNICEF office. “When they were walking, they were taking raw faecesin baskets, which would keep falling on their own heads and all around.”
In addition, sweepers employed by the municipality would demand additional money to clean up the garbage strewn throughout the slum.
“They would ask for 10 or 15 rupees, which is quite high for poor families,” Pande says. “It is not a priority for these poor communities, and the neighbours would fight about who should pay.”
Promoting proper hygiene is part of a 10 Point Child-Friendly Agenda being promoted by the women’s group, whose members are trained with support provided by IKEA Foundation, all within the context of an integrated project aimed at building a protective environment for children.
Sushma Sharma has been a member of the group since it was formed last November. “We all sit together, discuss our problems and find solutions,” she says.
The group has mapped the families in the community and developed an action plan, identifying each problem, the reason behind it, the potential solution, roles and responsibilities and the progress made. Formal meetings are held twice a month and home visits are also made by group members.
The group met with the municipality to request the open drains be cleaned and that the demands for bribes stop. Now the sweepers come every week, says Sushma, dressed in a sunset coloured sari, her part tinted with a red streak of vermillion. Flush toilets also have been introduced to their slum neighbourhood.
The women’s group promote simple, cost-effective messages to families like the importance of proper hand washing. Hand washing with soap, particularly after contact with excreta, can reduce diarrhoeal diseases by over 40 per cent and respiratory infections by 30 per cent. Diarrhoea and respiratory infections are the number one cause for child deaths in India. Hand washing with soap is among the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent diarrhoeal diseases and pneumonia.
Today, her neighbourhood is “too much clean,” says Munni. Through the open doorway of her home a few pots, plates and cups are stacked neatly on a shelf that lines the pink room.
“The children used to have bloated bellies and very thin hands and legs and that’s reduced a lot,” says the volunteer with swirls of henna decorating the soles of her feet. Gold and silver plastic bangles line her arms and a stud glints from her nose.
Human excreta are the essence of the sanitation challenge. One gram of faeces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 parasite eggs.
“Good health and proper hygiene are inextricably linked,” says Adele Khudr, chief of the UNICEF office in Uttar Pradesh the most populous state in India with 183 million inhabitants.“These women are educating and empowering their communities to ensure that improved hygiene practices are accepted and sustained.”
Munni says being a member of the group has increased her status in the community.
“I’m much respected, and everyone greets me,‘ salaam .’My life is nearly over but I want to ensure a better life for my children and all the children here,” says Munni, her eyes shining in her lined face as she breaks into a bright smile. “Wherever I go I tell them the same messages. It’s in my nature to help people. God has given me hands and legs so it’s better to use them for helping others.”