Patna, 16 March 2006 - The women of Barkichilmi, Goitha, Maile and Muzaffarpur – four panchayats (village clusters in the state of Bihar) have made history by winning the most prestigious award for cleanliness and hygiene – the Nirmal Gram award. They led the movement for installing hygienic toilets one year ago. The award is given by the Government of India after a team ratifies the claims of 100 per cent sanitary toilet coverage, no open defecation and practice of other laid down hygiene norms.
"It is women who suffer the most when there is no toilet installed in a house. That is why it is a women's issue"
"We have worked hard for it. We are extremely happy to have been selected," says Rama Devi, a resident of Barkichilmi in Gaya district, an hour away from Bodh Gaya where Gautam Buddha attained enlightment centuries ago. In two panchayats in Bodh Gaya, the Mahila Samakhya, with the support of Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) and UNICEF, has taken sanitary toilets to each household.
"It is women who suffer the most when there is no toilet installed in a house. That is why it is a women's issue," says Sister Sabina, State Co-ordinator of Mahila Samakhya. Mahila Samakhya took up sanitation as an area of work at UNICEF's request, and has since then installed thousands of toilets in the rural areas of Bihar. Toilet coverage in Bihar in 2001 was 14 per cent, which in 2005 increased to 19 per cent. UNICEF State Representative Bijaya Rajbhandari says that an award such as the Nirmal Gram will go a long way in generating awareness about the sanitary options available to rural people. "I am certain in a very short time these model panchayats will inspire many more to accord top priority to sanitation," he said.
In all the award-winning villages, sanitation was seen as an issue which affected women more. The idea found a ready set of people in villages that were keen on protecting women's dignity. Says Terti Devi, a Musahar (a marginalised community), "Open defecation injures our pride and privacy. Moreover, there have been many cases of sexual harassment, rape and molestation of women, particularly dalit women, when women have stepped out of their houses before or after sunset (always in the dark for greater privacy). The toilets have given us izzat (honour)." Women have also reported of diseases of the digestive tract as they are forced to suppress their urge to go to the toilet till sunset.
"Open defecation injures our pride and privacy."
The Nirmal Gram movement, therefore, had women leading the process of change all the way. While toilets were built, women in villages played a key role in getting community members to agree to install these. Women also helped in keeping a watch to ensure that no one headed for the fields – which would have led to disqualification for the award. "I would sometimes see people taking the advantage of darkness, heading for open defecation and would catch them," says Rani, a "watchman".
The change in the quality of lives as well as pride of people is easily discernible even as Paro Devi, a poor woman of Maile holds her head high as she no longer has to encounter the gaze of men and passersby. Paro now has a toilet at the back of her small two-room hut. The women now have two reasons to smile – they have had the