#WorldToiletDay: Don’t Just Build Toilets, Get People To Use Them

Posted: November 19, 2014

On #WorldToiletDay, can we be innovative and move beyond hashtag activism to changing community attitudes to toilet usage in India?

There has been much noise on the Internet in recent times, over toilet usage in India. From building the structures to changing behavior with respect to using a toilet, the debate has shifted from infrastructure and policy to changing attitudes towards using a toilet.

From the Total Sanitation Campaign started by the Government of India, to the #Poo2Loo campaign by international organizations, we have seen innovative strategies employed to persuade people to go to the loo instead of defecating and peeing in the open. Still, despite the decades and millions spent on the project to change behavior and practices, innumerable gaps exist. Why so?

My experience with the toilet and sanitation project has taken me to a number of different villages in North India. I vividly remember the stories my grandmother used to tell me, of how as young girls, they used to go to the fields as a group, in the wee hours of the morning, before sunrise, to defecate in the open. Some of these stories included being bitten by snakes and field rats as well.

Scary as the whole idea was to me, it was much later when I started working on the issue that I realized how the act is pretty much prevalent even today. While we see people defecating in the open in cities as well, it is a common affair in the rural parts of the country. The questions that arise today after so many decades of struggle to change the practice include: Why is it that despite years of infrastructure development on toilets we have failed to change behavior? How is it affecting women? Why, at the very basic level, do people fail to use a toilet?

Why is it that despite years of infrastructure development on toilets we have failed to change behavior? How is it affecting women?

In India, where one boasts of having more cellphones than toilets, the fact remains that even today 600 million Indians don’t have access to a toilet facility. Is it the failure of the government? Apparently, my earlier post on public urination has been a debating point for many men and women who tell me, “How do we control public peeing when there are not many toilets around?”

This has been the attitude of the Government as well; ‘Provide people with toilets and they will start using it’ is the only mandate. In the name of IEC (Information, Education and Communication), we have developed a series of hoardings and posters with a few public service advertisements  on radio and TV, using the mass communication method of taking the whole issue ahead. As a Sanitation and Health challenge, we have failed to deliver the idea that defecating in the open results in bad health.

I remember those visits a few years back to the villages in Haryana. While a few men told our team that “khule mein jaane se dimaag khulta hai” (defecating in the open helps in opening up one’s mind/system), the women  spoke of how they would control the urge to defecate till it got dark, creating a health hazard for them. They had seen their parents do it, and they were told this is the best option. When they don’t see an alternative convincing enough, people don’t change their behaviour.

A woman remarked, “Suraj Dhalne ke baad hi jaate hain, din mein hum kaise jaayein?” (We go after sunset only. How can we go in daylight?). Women after all, due to the social circumstances and patriarchal systems of living are the worst affected. They control the urge, which leads to a number of health problems. Worse, they are harassed owing to their movement in the dark. Who hasn’t heard of the Badaun rape case where girls went out to defecate and were raped?

On another visit, a Below Poverty Line (BPL) family who had built the free toilet a day before under the Total Sanitation Campaign had broken down the whole structure and used the bricks to repair a wall in the house. Why one wonders, would somebody not use a free toilet constructed on their home premises? The answer lies in the very way the problem is still being targeted: Where is the behaviour being challenged?

Communities, opinion leaders, religious leaders need to be targeted in order to create the intra-community communication that motivates people to use a toilet.

To ensure that people use these structures, the social sanction that has been given to open defecation need to change. Communities, opinion leaders, religious leaders need to be targeted in order to create the intra-community communication that motivates people to use a toilet. Taking forward the whole campaign in the way the country dealt with Polio is worth a thought. The strategies of communication need to move beyond mass media mechanisms, using traditional and alternative media systems to target the behaviour. Community radio stations in India have been doing a lot of participatory programming, involving communities in designing social messages for the use of toilets and promoting behavior change. But, are we tapping on this valuable resource enough?

There are these positive stories of women and men who have challenged the social structures despite resistance from their community members and have boosted the use of toilets. While bringing such positive deviants on board and taking their stories into every house-hold can do some wonderful behaviour change, in the case of women especially, the approach needs to be very direct, attacking the very root. We can give the campaigns promoting toilets usage a thousand names but unless and until these programmes, campaigns and projects are not converged to target the same behaviour again and again, change is still a long-term goal.

As much as it is a civic issue, to me, the issue of toilets has been a women’s issue. The story of the woman who refused to marry a man from a house with no toilet has been inspiring, but are we leveraging on this opportunity enough to target men and families to build toilets? Where is it that we converge the gender-health-civic dimensions of the issue?

As long as women in villages have no control over their basic natural urge to pee or defecate as they please, the whole chaos on social networking remains of little use to me. Investing in local behaviour change mechanisms is therefore the need of the hour. If we target the behaviour, people will be compelled to build toilets in their homes. As of today, we as a country are pretty much doing the opposite: A lot of debate and discussion but in a real sense, little action on the ground!

Toilet sign via Shutterstock

A Development Communication & Social Work professional working in the field of gender, health and technology

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