Women leaders across rural India are contributing tremendously towards the making of a Swachh Bharat by bringing about behaviour change in communities while inspiring others to be like them
It is the age of Nari Sashaktikaran or women empowerment. It is indeed high time for us to recognize and acknowledge the power of women in our society. But this is not only about women in sports, politics, cinema, armed forces, corporate businesses, or other fields. It is about common women of rural India who despite being devoid of equal opportunities and privileges enjoyed by men, have transformed into leaders and changemakers of our rural communities, owing to initiatives such as the Swachh Bharat Mission Grameen, or SBM-G.
As a part of the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, I have had the privilege of witnessing the transformation. SBM-G is currently in its second phase. While Phase I of the programme launched on 2nd October 2014 by our Prime Minister had making India Open Defecation Free (ODF) as one of its prime objectives, SBM-G Phase II aims to sustain ODF alongwith solid and liquid waste management. This includes Bio-degradable Waste Management including GOBARdhan, access to improved ways of non-biodegradable Waste Management, Greywater Management and Faecal Sludge Management leading to visual cleanliness.
The key perspective of SBM-G was not to merely fund and construct toilets in individual households, but to ensure a change in the collective behaviour of people. Therefore, our approach towards achieving this major feat was based on Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), an approach tried and tested in several countries over a period of 15-20 years. The CLTS approach encouraged participation from within the community and devised solutions on the basis of their assessment. This led local women to raise their voices against the apathy faced by them since time immemorial. Only the women in our villages can appropriately describe the ordeal of defecating in the open in the early hours of the day especially during menstruation and pregnancy, whether it was during the winters or the monsoons. Lack of a toilet at home not merely jeopardized their privacy and safety but was an attack on their basic rights.
Women being the biggest beneficiaries of the ODF drive led to more and more women coming forward to lead this movement and becoming the key to its success. 30 to 40 percent of women volunteers known as ‘Swachhagrahis’ triggered the process of bringing about collective behavioural changes through the emergence of natural leaders. Women Surveillance Committees or the Mahila Nigrani Samitis ensured a complete ban on open defecation. With primarily women leaders spearheading this campaign, various others, including women’s self-help groups, Mahila Samakhya groups etc., also joined in to align themselves with this movement. Women representatives, elected in Panchayati Raj institutions also played an active role in many places. It was established without doubt that the involvement of women led to the success of SBM-G, in comparison to earlier sanitation drives. Women leaders supported by a group performed exceedingly well in bringing changes in community behaviours even in patriarchal societies where women were not accepted in leadership roles.
Here are some examples of some of SBMG’s best performing women ambassadors who successfully brought sweeping changes in the attitudes and behaviours of communities.
T. M. Gracy Helen from Kovandakurichi Village Panchayat in Pullambadi block of Trichy district, is one of the finest examples of a typical Swachhagrahi or a woman leader who has inspired many, both inside as well as outside her group. She has been working tirelessly for over the past two decades as a member of a women’s Self-Help Group (SHG) towards promoting safe sanitation and personal hygiene practices among rural people. She was promoted to the position of a sanitation master trainer in 2015. She earned the title of a role model Motivator for playing an active role in community mobilization in her District. During the first phase of SBM-G she motivated 1520 beneficiaries in her block to construct and use twin pit toilets which helped in making her Gram Panchayat open defecation free. Her confident approach and strong communication skills made her a key influencer in spreading sanitation awareness and bringing behavioural changes in her village. Under the second phase of SBM-G, Gracy contributed immensely towards the sustainability of the ODF status of her village. As a state level Master Trainer, she has trained over 2000 motivators, representatives of Panchayati Raj Institutions, Village Poverty Reduction Committee members, SHG members of various districts and many more.
Mrs. S. E. Panghate is yet another example of how a common woman with her steadfast approach, commitment and perseverance can make transformational changes across communities. Panghate hails from the Pimpalgaon village in Korpana Taluk of Chandrapur district in Maharashtra and is credited with making as many as 21 tribal villages open defecation free. She made it a point to first establish communication with the village level government functionaries and motivated them to work for sanitation in their village. After that she involved active men and women to spread the word about sanitation and the importance of villages being ODF to the maximum number of people. Along with this team of men and women, Panghate conducted village meetings and convinced people of the need and importance of constructing toilets thereby eliminating open defecation practices in the process. She made it a point to personally visit households without toilets and convinced them to construct one. She also worked towards solid and liquid waste management for sustainable sanitary conditions in all Gram Panchayats.
These women leaders have performed exceptionally well in propagating SBMG and several others like them are currently working tirelessly towards making the Swachh Bharat Mission Grameen an exemplary model for others to follow.
(The Author is, Secretary, Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ministry of Jal Shakti, Government of India)
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