Hygiene with Dignity
Teachers in rural India face the same problem every year…they ask the Government for funds to no avail…NGOs stick to the big cities and ignore the cries of help from the rural teachers. What is the problem they face??? Toilets, or should I say the lack of them?
When Gayatri Kaur (actual name withheld for privacy) graduated from her teachers college in urban Mumbai, she went back to her village to teach in the local school there. To her shock and disappointment, on the first day of school…she realized that not only would she be teaching young teenage girls in a ramshackle building on the floor but that she would have answer the call of nature in the open. The system worked this way; if a girl student or teacher needed to answer the call of nature during school hours, four girls would accompany them with duppattas or shawls. These girls with shawls would form a canopy around the girl or teacher who had to answer the call of nature in the open quite a distance away from the school. The waste would not be cleaned up and the girls would thread their way back to school. The whole process would take about 20 minutes of the girls’ precious time at school. Gayatri Kaur refused to answer the call of nature in the open and decided to bring up the issue in front of the Panchayat of her village. (Panchayat is a rural governing body of five elders which had its origin in Ancient India).
Nothing could be done for a few years but with the help of the government and panchayat things started to improve. Gayatri Kaur along with some workers from the UNICEF has started a scheme which Gayatri termed ‘Hygiene with Dignity’. It was the new rural governing bodies who contacted the UNICEF and now Gayatri’s school has got a toilet with doors for privacy.
The UNICEF with the help of a determined and persevering Gayatri started studying the hygiene situation in most of the rural schools in India. They found out that Gayatri’s school was not the only school that lacked toilet facilities. Many such schools existed in the villages, where girls had to do their toilet in the open or in the nearby forests. Most of these places were unsafe not only where hygiene was concerned…but disgusting men ogled at the girls while they answered the call of nature quite a distance away from the protection of their schools.
The newly elected Panchayats were disgusted with the sad plight of school girls in the villages and so now have been constructing bathrooms and toilets in each and every school in rural India.
Gayatri Kaur went on to do her post-graduation in Sociology and after that started touring all villages in India to study the plight of the students where their hygiene were concerned. To her utter horror, she found that many students were suffering from a myriad of diseases like rickets, scurvy, beriberi, goitre etc due to the lack of health and hygiene management. She came across parents of these same children who were unaware about proper basic hygiene. Gayatri then with the help of some Hindu missionaries started a school of her own where she pursued her dream goal…hygiene, health and proper nutrition for students studying in rural schools.
In her school with the help of village funds Gayatri built separate toilets for boys and girls. She was noted saying that many schools in rural India did not have separate toilets for girls and boys and that was where sexual abuses used to take place. She started a separate subject called ‘Hygiene Science’ where teachers taught the students basic hygiene norms like:
- Brushing your teeth before and after meals
- Having a bath once a day and if there was shortage of water in the villages, at least the students should use the water available to clean their faces and private parts.
- Using sanitary pads during periods for girls and not cloths. These sanitary pads were donated on a monthly basis by UNICEF to the girls.
- Cleaning ones nails.
- Clipping ones nails before coming to school.
- Oiling and washing ones hair at least once in a week.
- Going for at least one dental check-up a year.
- Washing ones hands after one visited the toilet.
- Having a routine check-up every month etc.
Collages were made and projects undertaken by the students based on hygiene. These projects were then shown to the parents of the students on Parents Day to educate parents about hygiene techniques. Children were rewarded when they came to school neatly dressed and those who were working hard to keep themselves neat and clean were made monitors. The municipal workers made regular inspections of Gayatri’s toilets and bathroom facilities. Seeing her determination, these authorities started a pump well near her school to provide fresh drinking water for the children.
Although Gayatri Kaur has changed the face of hygiene and health in her village, many rural areas still lack proper toilet and bathroom facilities. Indeed the evil of caste system also prevails in these villages where the ‘so called’ higher castes are allowed to use the school toilets while the ‘so called’ lower castes have to answer the call of nature in the open or in toilets with no commodes…where a large hole serves as a waste dumping area. Sadly, these very same holes filled with urine and excreta have to be cleaned by the children of the ‘so called’ lower castes themselves!
We who have proper health, nutrition and hygiene facilities in our cities are unaware of the plight of so many innocent children who struggle every day to get the facilities for a better living which they deserve as citizens of the same country. Do we realize that just the way our dignity is respected where our sanitation is concerned even our brethren in the rural areas need that same dignity, especially those rural villages that are deprived of proper supply of water?
It is time to make a change…start donating money and pay our taxes for the betterment of the country. Hygiene is a basic right of every child in India irrespective of religion, caste, race, or sex. We don’t need to become a ‘Gayatri Kaur’ but we can still by our small contributions make a difference…for we are a people of dignity and therefore we all deserve ‘hygiene with dignity’.
Copyright 2014 Fiza Pathan
Photo courtesy: Around 65% of the rural population in India defecates in the open. Photo: Nitin Kumar Gupta/NavShrishti NGO